How the Museum Started
Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum has been an iconic tourist attraction, first in France and then in London, since the end of the 18th century. Now a worldwide chain of 14 museums and growing, the museums are entitled Madame Tussauds without the apostrophe, and are part of Merlin Entertainments, the largest amusement company in the world except for Disney. The first Tussaud wax exhibits opened in Paris in 1795 and moved to London in 1802; in addition to the London museum, the Tussauds group has opened museums in Amsterdam, Bangkok, Berlin, Blackpool, Hollywood, Hong Kong, Las Vegas, New York City, Shanghai, Sydney, Vienna, Washington, D.C., Wuhan, Seoul, Tokyo, Beijing, Prague, Singapore, Orlando, San Francisco. The Tussauds portfolio includes about 50 other attractions, including Legoland, Sea Life Centers, Gardaland in Italy, The Dungeons, The London and Orlando Eye rides and Alton Towers, Thorpe Park, and Chessington World of Adventures in Britain.
The wax museum was begun by Marie Grosholtz, who learned the art of wax modeling from Dr. Phillipe Curtius in Switzerland and eventually inherited his vast collection of wax figures. She was appointed art tutor to the sister of King Louis XVI, became noted for making death masks and was engaged during the French Revolution to model. She modelled Voltaire, Rousseau and Benjamin Franklin from life. She exhibited wax figures throughout Europe and opened a gallery in Paris with her husband, François Tussaud. Invited to London by Paul Philidor, the inventor of the Magic Lantern, the Tussauds exhibited at the Lyceum Theater and after 1831 opened a museum on Baker Street.
In 1836 the museum acquired a permanent home there and began to show exhibits related to celebrated murders and criminal trials. After 1843 she advertised this with great success as “The Chamber of Horrors”. The museum then began to display the likenesses of famous people, some of which like Madame DuBarry, Robespierre and King George III still exist. Madame Tussaud created a self-portrait in 1842, which still stands at the entrance to the museum.
After her death in 1850, the Tussaud family continued to operate the museum, moving to its present location on Marylebone Road in 1884. After a period of financial turmoil, a group of businessmen bought the museum and operated it through the 20th century.
The collection came to include almost all the British royals, ten depictions of Winston Churchill through his life and figures from contemporary culture; many but not all of the original models were lost in a fire in 1925 and during bombing raids in 1941. The museum came to be featured in Gilbert and Sullivan operas, Sherlock Holmes stories, the novel The Scarlet Pimpernel, Alfred Hitchcock films and the Doctor Who series as well as many popular songs.
Museums outside London
International expansion began with the opening of a New York branch in 2000, and branches were subsequently added in Europe, Asia and Australia. There are many figures depicted in multiple museums who are known throughout the world, including Barack Obama, Queen Elizabeth II and sports and entertainment figures. Each museum also displays cultural and historical figures and scenes specific to that city and country, such as Mozart and Sigmund Freud in Vienna, past and present Australian prime ministers in Sydney, scenes from Chinese opera in Beijing and in the American branches, sports legends in Las Vegas and all the American presidents, even the short-timers like John Tyler and Chester A. Arthur, in Washington.
The focus is on entertainment and enjoyment, and problematic historical figures are relatively few. The biggest problem has been with the figure of Adolf Hitler, which was first made for the London museum in 1933 and was frequently vandalized and had to be replaced in 1936. The Berlin Hitler kept company with Otto von Bismarck, Karl Marx, Albert Einstein and Ann Frank as well as present-day democratic German politicians, and reflected a desire to display historical figures who had affected the city’s history for better or worse. In 2008 the statue was decapitated by a protester and had to be repaired, after which the attacker admitted that this had been done on a bet.
Most of the branch museums are chiefly oriented toward local history and culture: in Amsterdam, for example, you can create artwork along with Rembrandt and other masters, while visitors in San Francisco can be part of famous film scenes from nearby Hollywood and in Blackpool the focus is on the entertainment for which the resort has long been famous as well as British TV, music and football. The New York experience combines traditional historical wax figures, the New York theatrical and entertainment scene, the Spirit of New York as expressed in film and television and great American sports traditions.
The London Museum Today
The London museum also housed the London Planetarium and its astronomy shows from 1958 to 2006; from 2006 to 2010 planetary shows were given in the Star Dome. The dome is still an indispensable part of the museum’s profile, but since 2010 it has housed the Marvel Superheroes 4D attraction. Another Tussauds tradition is still going strong, however: the Chamber of Horrors continues to alarm visitors in their millions. Now under the rubric of “Scream!” and employing loud sound effects, strobe lights and live actors, the descendant of the original chamber depicts a maximum-security prison that has been taken over by its criminally insane inmates.
While connected in many ways to the famous London institution of the 19th century, Madame Tussauds continues to change with the times. The first trans gendered statue, depicting Laverne Cox, star of the television series “Orange is the New Black”, has just been unveiled, to the delight of the honoree. It has long been considered a high achievement to be given a place at Madame Tussauds: the comic novelist P.G. Wodehouse wrote that the highlight of his life came when a Tussauds sculptor came to New York to model him, bringing along a case of artificial eyes to match to Wodehouse’s own. Queen Elizabeth’s butler has recorded that the monarch spent an evening contemplating a new statue of her that was brought for her approval.
Betty White, Jimmy Fallon and Taylor Swift are only a few of the celebrities who have lately posed happily with their Madame Tussauds image. It is likely that the culture of this century will continue to be depicted along with those of the 19th and 20th in the original London museum and its 20 branches.