In a recent google search, I randomly came across a PDF document called "Panoptikon," filled with intriguing images (such as those above, drawn from the document) and, sadly, many German words I did not understand. I put my Germanaphile friend Stephen Vesecky on the job of translating it, and this is what he came up with:
The first chapter focuses on the psychological appeal of these curiosity shows in Germany during the 19th century. In an era of Victorian morals, it was important to make everything seem scientific, so that it wasn't viewed as bloodlust, to cover up the macabre fascination. As the 1800s wore on, the panoptika were presented more and more as medical museums, but continued to cater to the public's interest in the macabre, as well as the spiritual implications of being able to preserve real human remains and/or create lifelike wax figures, as well as sometimes providing pornographic content. Basically, the Panoptika had a transgressive quality. The book differentiates between some impresarios who presented the show as being of medical or scientific interest, and others who presented it as entertainment. However, there was no doubt that these "curiosity shows" gave important insights into the hidden urges of the bourgeois society of the time.
The Panoptikum offered an incredible variety of exhibits. The text gives some interesting descriptions, which included the sword of Frederick the Great, an enbalmed head of a cannibal from New Zealand, and the journal of a famous sex offender. These items were often faked.
"Oriental Harem," "Witch Torture of the Middle Ages," and "A knothole in the fence around the bathing pool" were some choice titles. It describes the psychology behind the public's interest in these "museums." In those days people were in much closer contact with the gruesomeness of life. More people believed in heaven and hell, and there was a different type of fascination with decay and death. In some ways it catered to the same type of fascination that we satisfy today by watching horror movies. There were "crime galleries" where they had wax figures of well known murderers and would include the tools they used to commit their crimes.
For me, the most amazing thing about the panoptikum is their incredible array of things that were on display, including wax figures of kings and mass murderers, enbalmed sharks, reconstructed torture chambers, and god knows what else.
I urge you to download the PDF for yourself here. If anyone has any further translational comments, or information abou this document or the author, please let me know!
ADDENDUM: I just learned of the identity of the author and the text from where this chapter was drawn--I received an email from Stefan Nagel with a link to his full work "Schaubuden: Geschichte und Erscheinungsformen." I wish I understood German, as this looks like it might be the best book ever... see what I mean by visiting the link. Why is all good research on these topics in French or German?