St. Joseph's Psychiatric Museum Lets Visitors Pretend To Be Detectives Like On TV | KCUR

St. Joseph's Psychiatric Museum Lets Visitors Pretend To Be Detectives Like On TV

May 27, 2019

Skulls and bones have a lot to say.

Among the most basic pieces of information they hold are the gender, age and sometimes cause of death of their former user.

"It's all recorded on the bones. All we have to do is teach people how to interpret those markers left on bone," says Ashley Burns-Meerschaert, who is headed to the Glore Psychiatric Museum in St. Joseph, Missouri to teach forensics classes.

Burns-Meerschaert is director of education at SKELETONS: Museum of Osteology, and has been teaching groups of curious people how to interpret those markers at the museum’s locations in Oklahoma City and Orlando.

She teaches the class with museum-quality replicas of skulls from real cases. The skulls and any other bones involved are created by Skulls Unlimited International, whose owner is also the founder of the osteology museums.

"While a group is solving a case — so an actual homicide, accidental death or suicide — they get supplemental evidence like toxicology reports, or ballistics reports, or maybe X-rays. We’ve incorporated different elements of forensics into it," Burns-Meerschaert says.

Ashley Burns-Meerschaert is director of education at SKELETONS: Museum of Osteology.
Credit Ashley Burns-Meerschaert / SKELETONS: Museum of Osteology

Kathy Reno, Glore's director of marketing and public relations, says science programming is popular at the museum, which tells the story of psychiatry with artifacts and replicas of equipment dating back the 17th century.

Reno says it's a museum of failed theories — many past treatments for those with mental illnesses amounted to torture, such as locking someone in a coffin-like box or cell, and repeatedly dunking a patient in cold water.

Whether the class is taught in Oklahoma, Florida or off-site in St. Joseph, it sells out quickly. When the first class at Glore sold out, Burns-Meerschaert agreed to stay in town to teach a second.

The forensics program is a good fit for Glore, Reno says, because the museum is interested in anything that has to do with the brain.

"Not only do we think in terms of mental health and all the things we know and still don't know about the brain, but we also wanted to look at what are the physical aspects of a human being, and how does that impact what we do or don't do or how we function or don't function," Reno says.

The forensics program teaches people to differentiate between stab wounds and bullet wounds, and teaches them how to estimate details like where the victim and perpetrator were standing in relation to each other at the time of the crime.

"People like pretending they get to be Bones for the night, like from the TV show," says Burns-Meerschaert.

SKELETONS is the largest privately-owned osteology museum anywhere, with a total of 8,000 skeletons in its collection, according to Burns-Meerschaert. The museum in Oklahoma has 800 specimens on display, including 350 fully articulated skeletons; the Orlando location has 500 skeletons assembled and hundreds of skulls.

Burns-Meerschaert says most people are fascinated by the skeletons in the museum as soon as they walk through the doors, while some are not so sure how to react.

"Once people see they can learn about it here and it's nothing taboo or macabre about it at all, it just really gives them a way to explore their own curiosity."

She says it's just the same with the forensics class.

"I think everyone feels very accomplished by the end of it," she says. "It kind of gets you to step out of your comfort zone a little bit."

Forensic Night at Glore Psychiatric Museum by SKELETONS: Museum of Osteology, 6-7:30 p.m., May 31 and June 1 at 3406 Frederick Ave, St Joseph, MO 64506. Ages 18+, $30, registration is required.

Also at Glore on June 1 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. is children's programming by SKELETONS: Museum of Osteology. Registration required. See website for details.

Follow KCUR contributor Anne Kniggendorf on Twitter, @annekniggendorf.