Museum more fright than fact

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Author: Noel Hemphill

More than most other organizations in Los Angeles, Scientologists are persistent in their cause. No visit to Old Town Pasadena would be complete without being approached by one of their black-clad representatives. In a further attempt to propagate their cause, they established an anti-psychiatry museum, dramatically called “Psychiatry: an Industry of Death,” located in West Hollywood. Started by the Citizens Commission on Human Rights (CCHR) and founded by Scientologists, the non-profit museum is run by people who call themselves “mental health watch dogs” on a campaign to expose the alleged evils of the psychiatric world.

They begin what they call their re-education of the public by directing tour groups to a clinical looking door, above which looms a quote from Dante’s Inferno, suggesting to all visitors that they “abandon every hope ye who enter here.” Indeed you shall, as you are ushered into a viewing room designed to resemble a padded cell, where a short film is screened – available for purchase at their gift shop, of course – that blares “facts” that allow viewers to begin to question what they really know about the so-called “pseudo-science” of psychiatry.

The first of the flaws included in this video is faulty analysis of research documents. Their favorite visual tool to shock museum visitors is to show the growth of the DSM, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. The CCHR interprets this expansion as a sign of psychiatrists overreacting and making an effort to gain financially by prescribing patients expensive medicines. Making such a radical claim demands more research, which the museum does not provide. Arguably, the growth of the DSM results from more research and understanding about psychiatry, not merely ploys to make money.

Once you have completed the painfully absurd movie, visitors move on to the actual exhibits. The museum is set up so that visitors walk through segments on the history of psychiatry, with each segment containing video and graphic images. The first conclusion I reached while walking through a section of early psychiatric treatments – a section that includes small scale replicas of spinning chair treatments and blood letting – is that scare tactics are this museum’s favorite methods of persuasion. My next reaction was confusion, for the amount of disturbing images of naked, writhing children and frail bodied patients made me wonder if I had blacked out and woken up in a Holocaust exhibit. Then again, this is clearly no ordinary museum. This museum is an interactive fun house – but minus the fun.

The museum explodes with theatrics that create a totally overwhelming sensory experience.  The walls and floors of the museum lie partly in shadows and partly illuminated by red lamps and neon signs. The whole place values flash over facts, with dioramas that are more visually stunning than intellectually stimulating; each exhibit is abundant with images but lacking in supporting text. The staff’s stubborn attitude does not welcome skepticism or even sincere intellectual discussion. In their minds, their ideology is never wrong, and they will direct you to every pamphlet in sight to prove it. Each tour guide watches you like a hawk and visitors feel more like teenagers suspected of shoplifting than innocent seekers of knowledge. My tour group concurred that the experience was absurd. Luckily, with free admission, none of us wasted a dime. 

Overwrought production of the museum does not make up for lack of research. Education becomes a secondary goal to the goal of giving visitors goosebumps. Despite their ending message that “you are safe so long as we are here”, I have never felt so much in danger.

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