The creepiest museum in the world
*Article contains images some may find upsetting
The Vrolik Museum in Amsterdam isn’t the usual kind of place that Lilly Likes would review… but that’s what makes it all the more interesting. This is a weird, borderline macabre, collection of medical oddities, bound to make anyone shudder at least once.
If you like a good scare or enjoy the odd horror, then this may be the tourist attraction you need in your life. If you’re in medicine? This might fascinate you while simultaneously freaking you out. It is one-part weird stuff, two parts medical oddity, and three parts bizarro. It brings a new meaning to the word ‘curios’… and that’s exactly why you should go there.
The Vrolik Family
The Museum Vrolik is known for being a weird place. It contains a collection once donated by one Gerardus Vrolik. He was both a professor of botany and of anatomy, who lived from 1775-1859. Now, this man was put in charge of the maternity ward at the Binnengasthuis in the city of Amsterdam. Of course; this was back in the day when a lady couldn’t request a female doctor because they were all men.
Anyway, while Gerardus was running the maternity ward, he developed a strange (some might say “unhealthy”) fascination with birth defects. After his death he donated all of these to the Amsterdam Athenaeum Illustre. This was like a medical training facility for young Doctors.
Gerardus had two sons. One of them went on to be a minister while the other followed in his father’s footsteps. Willem Vrolik lived from 1801 to 1863. Rather like his father, he studied anatomy; unlike his father he also followed the pathology field. When he died, he had contributed major advancements in the study of abnormalities in physical development.
So they were both a bit weird.
When they died, their collection of (medical) oddities was passed on. The Amsterdam Vrolikstraat is named after them. The Amsterdam Vrolikstraat is named after them. So even though they read like characters from a Mary Shelley novel, they genuinely helped make huge advancements in medical science.
The Vrolik Collection…
So what is it that you get the pleasure of seeing at this museum? Well Vrolik Senior contributed a whole bunch of babies in jars. Of course, they were all dead before he canned them, or so the origins claim.
It’s not just baby humans, but baby everything’s. The two were interested in the pathology and biology of all living things. At least all living things with spines. Many of the jarred creatures have birth defects that would have ultimately caused their deaths. Still… knowing that some of them lived once is devastatingly creepy. Willem was a specialist on deformities in vertebrae species, so you find lots of bones, skeletons, skulls and misshapen body parts here. There are plaster casts that represent real parts of the body and the same again for animal body parts. The collection specialised in showcasing embryology, pathology and anatomy of various mammals. The son did specific, integral work on congenital twins that won him prizes from the French Academy of Sciences.
The Vrolik Collection grew over time through a number of other collectors making donations. It is a perfect example of how far we must go in science before we properly understand things. The anatomical specimens contained within it helped solve diseases, treat well known conditions, and manipulate medicine to ensure that they didn’t happen again… but that doesn’t make it OK. Do the ends justify the means? The Vrolik Museum poses that question in a way that you don’t soon forget.
The Vrolik Museum Didn’t Arrive Until 1984
There is so much here that will send shivers down your spine… and actual spines are included in that. Recently voted one of the creepiest Museums in the World by Wonder World (who made a cool video that sums the Vrolik up pretty well), this museum was opened in the Amsterdam Medical Centre in 1984.
Although the Athenaeum Illustre acquired the collection in the late nineteenth century, the pieces didn’t go on display until the mid-1980’s. Why? Perhaps the nature of the specimens combined with the dissolution of the Illustre left the pieces forgotten about. More likely they were still in use as study aids.
At any rate, the Museum was opened within the Medical Centre of the University, which replaced the Illustre around 1877. Only the front gate now remains of that learning haven. Now you can attend the University. Another odd fact: up until 1961, professors at the University were appointed by the city council. What an odd way to do business. This whole article is weird.
What the Vrolik Museum Displays
We all know you came here to be scared by stories of things-in-jars, so let’s look more closely at the exhibits… Maybe with our eyes shut.
Conserved Anatomical Specimens
Just so we are clear, that’s everything pickled, stored in formaldehyde, or any other substance. They have specimens of both Siamese twins and cyclopean babies – that’s babies with a single eye. Obviously, these children didn’t make it into life. Their presence in the collection is reported as being of huge scientific value. They may or may not make your stomach turn.
When they tell you that the Vorlik Museum is not for the feint of heart, they mean it literally. Another part of the things-in-jars collection features anomalous embryo. This is the medical way of saying that these are foetus’ that never made it to be born because of abnormalities. All types of abnormalities are covered; from body parts in the wrong places to missing or fused.
There are full display cases with rows and rows of glass windows at the Vrolik Museum. There is a scene in ‘Return to Oz’ when the Queen is in the chamber of her 100 heads. It is like this – except real. Fortunately none of the skulls will talk to you. All of the display cases are filled with strangely shaped human and animal bones. There are also deformed skulls staring back at you but again, at least they don’t talk.
As well as the jar babies, the Vorlik Museum contains foetuses of all sorts of animals. They have panthers, otters, jaguars, and some unbelievable skeletons. They display a Tasmanian Devil Skeleton, one of the very few still in existence from an animal thought to be extinct.
Why We Need Medical Science
Congenital malformations are also covered. That is to say; those that were born with an inherited condition that led to their limited lifespan. It is thought that this is how they came to possess the Siamese twins. Some of the specimens suffered from dwarfism, some from Cyclopia. This horrific condition goes much deeper than being born with only one eye.
When a child has this condition it has developed early on in the growth of the foetus. The skull fuses and doesn’t allow the brain to form two hemispheres. This leads to everything being fused together in a fatal way. Most babies with this condition aren’t born, or don’t live more than a few hours. The whole brain cavity is malformed, and the foetus often has no nose. The eye will be single but split in the centre. Sometimes, the nose grows above the eyes.
The thing is: whether you love or hate the Vrolik museum, we wouldn’t know as much about Cyclopia as we do now, without it. This collection is frequently used by medical students to demonstrate how the human body works. We can also tell that the condition forms early in development because men like the Vrolik family went out and collected these seemingly disrespectful specimens.
The whole thing reminds us of the grave robbers, Burke and Hare, in Edinburgh. They sold bodies to the medical students at the university for study. Soon the two took up the dastardly crime of murdering people, just so they had enough bodies to make good money. They were caught in the end. The argument is a similar one… Did the bodies they contribute give their worth in contributions?
It’s a horrible debate and there is no right opinion. If there was, it would be like admitting some of us are of more use if we are dead… Which definitely can’t be right.
Can I Visit the Vrolik Museum?
Of course! Although it is most commonly used by medical students (and everyone makes a big fuss of this. You would think they were trying to justify its existence for some reason) you can visit it too. They will give you guided tours, but you need to book them in advance. They need at least two weeks’ notice before you get there for the guided tours; presumably to hide away all the bodies.
Although they allow children in and have a childs ticket we think children should not be taken to the Vrolik Museum. For the family-friendly version you can see some of their specimens at NEMO, the kiddie-focused science centre. Do not take your children to the Vrolik unless you want to scar them for life. We’re adults here at Lilly Likes and we are a little scared, but its your choice.
When Can I Visit?
It is open Monday to Friday, from 11am to 5pm. Remember, if you want the tour you need to book in advance. You can reach them on 020-5669111 or by visiting their website.
Lilly Likes Other Things
If the Vrolik isn’t to your taste, then have no fear. Head on over to Lilly Likes HQ and find something to do in Amsterdam that suits you better. How about a pancake buffet on board a canal cruise? No? How do you feel about retro gaming? We’re pretty sure we have something for everyone… Go have a peek.