Halfway through a possible yearlong run, the Instruments of Torture exhibit at the San Diego Museum of Man has exceeded organizers’ ambitious hopes and could relieve the nonprofit’s financial pain.
More than 30,000 people have viewed the oldest known iron maiden, inspected thumb screws and pictured themselves on The Rack since the exhibit’s July 2012 debut, said the chief operating officer of the museum.
“Our attendance is up 60 percent over the previous year—year-to-date,” the COO, Rex Garniewicz, said Thursday during a press tour. The goal was a 51 percent jump.
Museum attendance overall has recently been 150,000 a year but is jumping to 200,000, thanks to the exhibit on loan from Italy, he said.
“We did better than what we budgeted,” he said as dozens of people wandered through the 3,000-square foot exhibit across a courtyard from the main museum entrance west of the Plaza de Panama.
Last March, U-T San Diego reported that the museum had laid off seven employees (three of them full-time) and closed its store.
According to its latest financial disclosures—filed in May 2012—the Museum of Man lost $430,559 in 2010-11. The previous fiscal year, its net loss was $842,373.
The nearly century-old Balboa Park museum had a similar show of Medieval torture items for a couple years starting in 2000, said Garniewicz, who came to San Diego as a consultant a little over a year ago from the Indiana State Museum.
But that pre-9/11 exhibit was criticized by San Diego-based Survivors of Torture International, said Kathi Anderson, co-founder and executive director of the service group launched in 1997.
“It was not in the context of what was happening in this era,” Anderson said Thursday.
That changed this time, both said. Garniewicz, who also curated the exhibit, said he met with torture survivors and the Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace & Justice at the University of San Diego.
He said he brought the Survivors of Torture group in as “partners when we developed the contemporary bookends for this exhibit”—the wall posters describing events at Abu Ghraib, for example.
“They have been really phenomenal partners,” he said. “They helped us promote the exhibit.”
Anderson, a Del Cerro resident with degrees in international studies and counseling, said the exhibit “fits perfectly with our mission” in education. “It’s been a very good partnership.”
But the group, which helps people from 76 nations overcome the physical and emotional scars of torture, doesn’t recommend its clients see the exhibit.
“We’re very careful in not trying to retraumatize our clients,” Anderson said. “They want to move forward—not revisit their past.”
Garniewicz, the curator, said the exhibit had success beyond the bottom line.
“It’s not just about finances of the museum,” he said. “It’s about our mission—making people think about the world in a new way.”
Instead of being accused of glorifying torture—or making money displaying items like the diving chair used to reveal supposed witches—the museum has been praised, Garniewicz said.
He quoted one torture survivor who toured the exhibit as saying: “No matter what other people say—that they don’t want to see this—you need to present this as a reality of life.”
He said one of the most moving comments written in a guestbook was: “The exhibit made me think that I should be a better person.”
Garniewicz, 43, also has become a local go-to person for expert comment on torture scenes in the new Bin Laden raid movie Zero Dark Thirty. KPBS interviewed him Monday, for example.
“It’s interesting from my perspective the way [the film] shows waterboarding—they’re clearly portraying that as torture,” he said.
In preparing the torture exhibit, he said, “there were so many stories I wanted to tell,” including about waterboarding, which was used in the Middle Ages and by Japanese on U.S. prisoners of war during World War II. But waterboarding didn’t make the cut.
“I think Zero Dark Thirty shows how gruesome that type of torture actually is—and makes you think about it.”
The Museum of Man exhibit—with admission ranging from $12.50 to $20, or $7.50 for museum members—had a similar effect, said Grant Barrett, the museum’s new marketing manager.
“They come in cracking jokes, but they leave thinking about the exhibit,” Barrett said.
Perhaps 100 items are on exhibit in the only such display of torture items in the United States, Garniewicz said. They’ve been to Mexico City and around Europe—on loan from Museo della Tortura in Italy.
“They’re not second-rate objects,” he said. “It’s some of the best stuff, which is amazing.”
He said that’s in keeping with the Museum of Man’s reputation as the “Smithsonian of the West”—whose 1915 Panama–California Exposition founding led to exchanges and visits with Smithsonian officials from Washington.
“We’re trying to make people think about the world in a different way,” Garniewicz said. “It’s not ... about pots and baskets and ancient ways of life.”
When will the exhibit end?
Garniewicz says he doesn’t know—although the contract with the donor museum is through July 2013.
“But we are really encouraging visitors to come in the next couple months to make sure they get a chance to see it,” he said.
How much is Museo della Tortura charging the Museum of Man for the rare artifacts?
That’s confidential, Garniewicz said, prompting digital artist and U-T San Diego arts blogger Joe Nalven, chatting with the curator, to remark:
“If you torture him, you can get that information.”