Museum of Osteology
Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
If you're curious what it would be like to have x-ray vision, then the Museum of Osteology is a good place to find out.
The museum is in Oklahoma City because it's next door to Skulls Unlimited, a leading supplier of skeletons and skulls to academia, veterinarians, and a surprisingly skull-happy public. Both were the vision of Jay Villemarette, who is not a scientist or a doctor. He graduated high school as an auto body technician, but found a career when he discovered that people were as fascinated by bones as he was.
Jay's success lies in his method of extracting perfect skeletons from dead bodies. Flesh-eating beetles play an important role, and they're the first thing visitors see when they enter the museum, cleaning the meat off of a dead animal behind a glass window. "They're chewing on a dog skull today," said Josh Villemarette, Jay's son, who added that the beetles can strip flesh to the bone in 24 hours. A sign next to the window calls the beetles, "nature's decomposers, without which we would all be knee deep in rotting carcasses."
"They're everywhere," said Josh of the beetles. "They're in our grass. They're in your yard" (Remember that the next time you walk outside barefoot).
To get perfect bones, Josh said, a corpse can't simply be dunked in corrosive acid. Instead, careful defleshing requires knives, controlled rotting, a lot of hand labor, and beetles. Josh invited us next door to take a quick look. The smell of decomposing bodies was unforgettable (although surprisingly less pungent than the barn at the Pig Museum). The processing building is strictly off-limits to visitors, Josh said, for fear it might cause them "mental anguish."
In the museum, however, the result is pristine. There is no smell, and no visible bits of gristle or scraps of skin; the beetles obviously get into every nook and cranny. The bones are so clean that we at first thought that the skeletons and skulls were plastic.
We were drawn, of course, to the human bones and freak bones. The museum's collection of two-faced, two-headed, and cyclops calf skulls is unmatched, with eight currently displayed and more in storage. On the human side are skeletons of dwarfs, a hunchback, trephination skulls, the bound feet of a Chinese woman, a showcase of broken bones that healed poorly, the skull of a soldier shot through the head, and the skull of Jay Villemarette (who isn't dead) reproduced through CT scans and a 3-D printer. According to its accompanying sign, "Jay always wondered what it would be like to examine his own skull."
Animal skeletons are everywhere, hundreds of them, ranging from tiny mice and hummingbirds to a 40-foot-long humpback whale whose bones took four years to clean. There's a display of skeletal vampire bats, a Komodo Dragon that once belonged to President Bush, and the skull of a NASA space chimp in its own showcase. The Oklahoma Wildlife exhibit includes a raccoon skeleton eating a box of Milk Duds, evidently a crowd-pleaser. Visitors can buy a golden medallion of it in the gift shop, along with bags of rat skulls or a basket made from the shell and tail of a dead armadillo. There's no death rattle at the bone museum; Josh said that attendance has been up every year since it opened in 2010.
Custom orders continue to surprise the staff at Skulls Unlimited. "For some reason there's a big thing in California for articulated skeletons of your pets," said Josh, while deer hunters in Oklahoma want their trophy mount skulls given an artistic finish.
"We said, 'You could just have a normal skull, or you could have one with an American flag on it,'" said Josh. "And the people said, 'Yes!'"