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Interactive cannibalism exhibit comes to San Diego's Museum of Man

SAN DIEGO - From movies to real-life, cannibals have been a feared part of human culture for hundreds of years. The thought of one human eating another’s flesh are the things of which horror movies are made.

Today, San Diego’s Museum of Man opens its Cannibals: Myth and Reality exhibit which explores the lore behind cannibalism across the world, and it will certainly leave you questioning whether or not you have a taste for human flesh yourself.

Modern society certainly has its sociopaths and serial killers who are notorious for eating parts of their victims, but the main focus of this instillation is to challenge the sane person with questions about human survival and morality.

Doctor Emily Anderson, Director of Exhibit Development, took SDGLN on a tour of the show before the doors opened to the public and explains that cannibalism isn’t just something of horror stories, in fact its origins may have been less about eating humans, but rather a way to control them, especially primitive societies.

"Identifying people as cannibals became one strategy of making sense of that but also justifying not treating people with respect or equals and also subjugating them taking them over and enslaving them," Anderson said.

She explains that people rarely hear about how Christopher Columbus, on his travels through the Caribbean labeled the indigenous people as cannibals without proof, then reported this back to Isabella and Ferdinand who took the opportunity to make the natives their slaves because they were now considered less than human.

“They basically said that cannibals, we can enslave, and put them to work in the mine and that was the key reason why the entire population of those islands was decimated about after fifty years.”

As you make your way through the historically timelined paths of the exhibition you will discover that Europeans became fixated on the existence of cannibals, and created a stigma by which the rest of the world would adhere to even today.

“One thing that people may be looking for and they’re not going to find is standard conventional ethnographic displays of Fiji or New Zealand,” Anderson said. “Because we really want to make sure those people who are not able to tell their own stories are able to tell their own stories and especially with those communities.”

The displays are more historical than horrific. You won’t see painted New Guinea tribes people with femurs through their noses or European explorers tied up in cauldrons with veggies and spices floating about them.

Cannibals paces out the inceptions of savagery in a global timeline which holds more facts than visceral fiction, “It’s more of like, here’s how the stereotype develops,” Anderson said of the installation.

Americans seemed to subscribe to Europe's dark obsession in 1904, when a young man named Ota Benga from the Congo was purchased and put on display as a part of a pygmy cannibals freak show exhibit at the St. Louis World’s fair. After that Benga was then placed in the Monkey House in the Bronx Zoo, where he eventually took his own life.

From there, American and European apothecaries became so intrigued that they began to wonder how parts of the human body could benefit them healthwise. In an inspired interactive display, museum patrons can select certain symptoms which ail them and find out what a doctor would have prescribed back then.

“In the sixteen, seventeen and eighteen-hundreds you could be prescribed medicines made from the human body,” Anderson says. “And this wasn’t French medicine, this was not folk remedies, this was mainstream cutting edge medicine promoted by leading scientists.”

For instance “Mummy Dust” made from ground-up ancient bodies, was thought to be a cure for bruising. Skull Moss, a naturally occurring phenomenon when skulls are left outside was snorted for hemostasis, or to stop blood flow.

Anderson points out the irony of white Europeans and later white Americans stigmatizing the act of cannibalism, were guilty of doing the same thing under the guise of modern medicine.

Although human remains were once thought to be essential for topical health, what about the act of cannibalism for human survival?

Cannibals: Myth and Reality does address that in a multitude of ways. First in a somber tribute to the famous soccer team in Brazil who out of desperation, had to resort to eating the dead for survival after their plane crashed in the Andes in 1972.

Then in another interactive display, designed and constructed by the San Diego Opera, a simulated life raft is set afloat on a virtual sea and it is up to the guests to draw straws in order to see who gets eaten, and who has to kill them.

Anderson talks about her inspiration for this elaborate part of the exhibit.

“I was reading about cannibalism and philosophy. And it’s not just that shipwrecks happened a lot, the scenario of being castaway at sea and whether or not killing someone was moral is something that many famous philosophers wrote about, to ask the question about natural law, the nature of man, it was a very prominent scenario.”

“My idea was really simple; let’s have people sit in a life raft and have to think about this,” she adds.

Making your way to the tail end of the installation you will find more audience participation activities such as a reboot of the famous “Oregon Trail” computer game which now follows the “Donner Party” instead.

Also a giant version of the game “Operation” which informs you of the best parts of the human body to eat if you ever find yourself having to do so to survive, and actual quotes of different people's thoughts about how human flesh tastes, “It was the best beef steak I ever tasted,” or “The brains are the best I ever ate.”

Rounding out the tour is a final room filled with questions about your own penchant for human body parts. It is a question, and probably discussion you will have throughout the remainder of the day.

Are you considered a cannibal if you have received a blood transfusion, or knowing that ordinary household dust contains human skin which you breath in everyday? Do you bite or ingest fingernail clippings, or your cuticles?

Dr. Anderson says these are some of the questions that inspired her to create the exhibit and open up dialogue about the practice whether it be a survival mechanism or just a challenging cognitive interpretation of its construction.

"Now that we've pushed people's comfort levels and expanded their definition, we wanted people to think about what is happening in current culture that if you feel more comfortable with the idea of cannibalism you might consider cannibalism too," she said. "So, what about breast milk? what about organ transplants? Do you say that's not cannibalism because you have a problem with that association, where does that resistance come from?"

Cannibals: Myth and Reality is a knowledgeable and insightful experiment into what makes humans uncomfortable with consuming human flesh even though the probably do it every time they take a breath or even kiss someone.

This is an awesome display; an exhibit worth eating up, if you’re hungry for knowledge.

The Details

Cannibals: Myth and Reality will be displayed at San Diego Museum of Man is located in Balboa Park; 1350 El Prado San Diego, CA, 92101. (619) 239-2001

Open Daily from 10 am to 5 pm. Closed Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day.