Travelogue – What San Diego ‘Museum of Man’ taught me about Torture

Ok, so this is not really a « travelogue » piece, but it has to do with my journey to Mexico, so let’s keep the title that way. Every tourist who went to San Diego will tell you the very same thing: you have to go to the Balboa Park. Apart from many palmtrees, some Japanese weird fish, two or three turtles and lots of birds (and green, green everywhere), you will find all the museums you need to see. Most of them close around 4 or 5 pm. The only one that stays open later is the Museum of Man, so I went for it… and I must say: no regrets. For 20 bucks, you get to see the museum (check out that Beerology part!) and the exhibition called « Instruments of Torture ». That’s the one I wanted to talk to you about. Because it actually shows more than some random ancient instruments of torture. It makes you think about it. Here’s an overview.

Museum of man San Diego Torture


Since it is forbidden to take photos of the exhibit on torture, I cheated. Sort of. I took a pen (and a few hours) to note everything down. I won’t bother you with the whole thing. Just a few parts that I thought were interesting enough to be shared with my English-speaking readers.


You probably noticed the date on top of my notebook. September 11, 2014. It was not deliberate, but now that I think about it, it’s kind of ironic. The exhibit, indeed, tackles 9/11 and its consequences… right at the entry of the museum. The question being: is there any event that justifies torture in this world? It goes on with boards about what happened in Abu Ghraib and an introduction to the most famous experiments that have been conducted on authority obedience (and the situations that lead, let’s say « honorable fathers »… to do horrible things).


I had already read about those experiments when I was studying, and you probably have (at the very least) heard about them, but I don’t think that refreshing our memory is so bad after all. So let’s go through the first one:


Milgram’s experiment on « Obedience to Authority »:


In 1961, Stanley Milgram, a psychologist at Yale University, began a series of social psychology experiments that measured the willingness of test subjects to obey an authority figure. Conducted only three months after the start of the trial of German Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann, Milgram’s experiment sought to answer the question, “Could it be that Eichmann and his million accomplices in the Holocaust were just following orders?” In the experiment, two participants (one secretly an actor and one an unwitting test subject) were separated into two rooms where they could hear, but not see, each other. The test subject would then read a series of questions to the actor, punishing each wrong answer with an electric shock. Though many people would indicate their desire to stop the experiment, almost all subjects continued when they were told they would not be held responsible, or that there would not be any permanent damage. [Source: « The 30 Most Disturbing Human Experiments in History »]



 milgram experimentmilgram experiment


« Although this research took place over 50 years ago, a number of recent studies demonstrate the same disturbing trend« . This sentence is far from anecdotal. In 2010, Swiss and French TV produced a documentary movie about a new form of obedience through TV shows, called Le Jeu de la mort (literally : The Game of Death), where the Scientist figure is replaced by… a TV presenter. It tells a lot about what we are ready to do once confronted to any kind of authority: in this case nothing more than a guy presenting a television quiz game.


[Read a BBC news article about the documentary/game show]


dostoyevski about evildoers


Stanford Prison Experiment (SPE)

10 years after Milgram conducted his experiment on authority obedience, a new experiment was conducted by a team of researchers led by psychology professor Philip Zimbardo at Stanford University.


Long story short:  the SPE a study of the psychological effects of becoming a prisoner or prison guard. 24 male students out of 75 were selected to take on randomly assigned roles of prisoners and guards in a mock prison situated in the basement of the Stanford psychology building. The participants adapted to their roles far beyond Zimbardo’s expectations, for the guards enforced authoritarian measures and ultimately subjected some of the prisoners to psychological torture. Many of the prisoners passively accepted psychological abuse and, at the request of the guards, readily harassed other prisoners who attempted to prevent it. The experiment even affected Zimbardo himself, who, in his role as the superintendent, permitted the abuse to continue.


On the pictures below you’ll notice that some of the prisoners had their faces covered with bags: that was not planned by Zimbardo: the undergraduate students decided to that on their own. Easier to abuse somebody who is already dehumanized, right? As a matter of fact, the inmates were called by numbers, and not by their names anymore.





The « ticking time bomb » as a justification for torture


Time ticking bomb by Melina Huet




Read the « torture » section of the Wikipedia article on critical reactions to 24


Bystanders versus Upstanders


Ok, it seems like a very polarized way of seeing things, but it’s quite fair to tackle that issue in such an exhibit. « What if » is the ongoing question. « What if I were a soldier in a war zone? » « What if I were the witness of any act of torture in the midst of a conflict? » « What if my life were endangered by an upstanding behavior? » etc.


I noted down this poem by Martin Niemöller, who had it all figured out at the end of the Second World War:


bystander, martin niemöller, german pastor



So, the exhibit reminded me that the most important upstanders in Mankind History were ordinary people. Like you. Like me. No need to be a movie star, a politician, a famous human rights lawyer – or who knows whom, to actually put a stop to torture acts all around the world (even the small ones).



upstander by mélina huet



And what now? You may ask. What can we do if we’re in a country where torture has been abolished a long time ago? Well… here’s the thing: it happens e-very-(bloody)where. Even in the US (ever heard of Guantanamo, besides Abu Ghraib?), even in Europe, even in Japan, etc. Small scale acts of torture are everywhere, starting with bullying at school (yep! it does have a psychological impact on kids).The few words below may sound a bit cheesy but I think it’s pretty easy to do what they suggest. I’m sure it has had, has, and will have, a positive impact if everybody thinks about it (forget about the Youtube video or « writing to your elected officials », not even sure about « writing a letter to the editor of your local paper » but it’s worth a try, don’t you think?).



what can we do about torture?



PG-13 Rating stuff (ok, let’s say R Rating)

Now we can get to the point. Among all the ghastly things I’ve seen in this exhibit, one really struck me. Instruments of torture exclusively dedicated to… guess whom? Women. I must admit I had no idea about it. Here’s a small selection of torture instruments that were exclusively used on women. If you don’t think you can stand it, you better get away. Now

Branks or Scold’s Bridles




Also called « Gossip’s Bridle » by the way. Gives the game away, right? So here’s what the SD Museum of Man says about it:


These devices were popular in a variety of forms from 1500-1800. Women were always the victims of these tortures. This device was intended to publicly humiliate a woman who was accused of talking in the presence of men or uttering displeasing words to men or those in power. The torture was a means to reinforce the domestic slavery of women by making a public example of their disobedience.


The victims were locked into the masks and staked at the center of the town square. In this condition, the women were at the mercy of the public, and many suffered beatings and other forms of abuse.


More info


Shrew’s fiddles



The Shrew’s Fiddle, like many of the objects in this collection, was used to torture and publicly humiliate a woman. The victim’s wrists and neck were locked into the holes. After a few days, the flesh was abraded into pulp, exposing the carpels, ulna, radius, and the cervical vertebrae.


Shrew’s Fiddles remained in use in Switzerland and Germany until the 1870s.

The Straw Plait



straw plait

The Straw Plait or Braid was used as a form of public humiliation and shame for unmarried mothers. The victims had their hair cropped and were obliged to wear the plaits in front of the main doors of the churches on the feast days.

May sound quite light, but who would bear such a public humiliation nowadays?

The chastity belt




The fable surrounding the chastity belts is that they served to ensure the fidelity of wives during long absence of husbands. This was never the normal usage of the chastity belt, as a woman locked up in the belt would die from infection, abrasions, and lacerations, not to mention the probability that the wife may even be pregnant.


The prevalent use of the belt was a very different one. The belt was a protection against rape, a frail barrier, yet a sufficient one used when there were quartering soldiers, during overnight stays in inns, or on journeys. We know from many testimonies that women locked themselves into the belt on their own initiative, a fact that some Sicilian and Spanish women still alive today remember.


Although not used to torture, the use of this instrument by women on themselves indicates the degree of untraceable tortures women could endure during rapes.



The Saw



The Martyrdom of Simon the Zealot Lucas Cranach, (between 1539 and 1548)
The Martyrdom of Simon the Zealot
Lucas Cranach, (between 1539 and 1548)



No, we’re not talking about the horror film here (even though this medieval torture device has something to do with the title of the movies you might have watched). The saw was not exclusively dedicated to women. No. Homosexuals were also eligible to it. See for yourself:



The saw torture can be carried out with a large-toothed, fourhanded woodsman’s saw. Martyrs and homosexuals suffered the fate of the saw. The person is inverted, assuring an ample oxygen supply to the brain and impeding the loss of blood. This keeps the victim conscious until the saw reaches the navel and sometimes the breast.


In Catalonia, during Napoleon and Wellington’s campaigns in 1808-14, the Catalonian guerillas subjected hundreds of French, Spanish, and British officers to the saw. The saw awaited the leaders of rebellious peasants in Lutheran Germany, and witches accused of being pregnant by Satan in France (cocorico!)



Breast ripper





Cold or heated, the ripper was used to pull apart the breasts of women condemned for heresy, blasphemy, adultery, self induced abortion, erotic white magic, and other crimes. In some regions of France and Germany until the  18th century, this treatment was inflicted upon married mothers, often while their babies, splattered with maternal blood, cried on the ground at their feet.


Breast ripping also served as an interrogational and juridical procedure


The oral, rectal and vaginal pear


Last but not least, here’s another pretty f**ked up instrument of torture that condemned women as well as homosexuals




These instruments are forced into the mouth, rectum, or vagina of the victim and expanded by force of the screw to the maximum width of the body cavity. The inside of the body is then mutilated, proving fatal. The pointed prongs at the end of the segments rip into the throat, the intestines or the cervix.

The oral pear was often inflicted on heretical preachers, the rectal pear on male homosexuals, and the vaginal pear on women guilty of several union with Satan or his familiars.


It’s pretty much the end. Now, take a deep breath and think about you’ve just read. If you thought torture is a story from the past, read the newspapers. If you think the few instruments I’ve mentioned at the very end of that paper are not used anymore, read more. Lots of these techniques are still in use in war zones. Read about torture in today’s world, talk about it, debate, teach, spread.


I know that this travelogue was not much fun but hey, who said that holidays had to be amusing ? ;-)



Next paper will be more pleasant, I promise




Mélina Huet


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