this weekGround Up-and-Coming

June 1, 2004

Museums of Interesting Things

Putting the muse back in museum

New Orleans Pharmacy Museum

There are two kinds of museums: museums where I get sleepy after about an hour of looking around, and museums of interesting things. I say this tongue-in-cheek, of course: all museums contain things that are interesting to someone. But interesting is in the eye of the beholder. Personally, I don’t get terribly excited viewing, say, Italian Renaissance paintings—even though I appreciate the quality and emotional depth of the art in principle. After looking at a few dozen of these, I slip quickly into a “been-there-done-that-time-for-a-nap” mood. On the other hand, a science museum can keep my attention indefinitely, while it has exactly the opposite effect on my wife, who will gladly ponder the da Vincis and Raphaels for hours on end.

I’ve been to dozens, maybe hundreds, of museums in my life, ranging from massive institutions such as the Louvre and the British Museum to the tiny Voodoo Museum in New Orleans and San Francisco’s Musée Mécanique, a collection of mechanical games and arcade amusements from the early 20th century. For me, what makes a museum interesting is not its size or fame but its ability to capture my imagination with things I’ve never encountered before. More often than not, this rules out the big, impressive museums of art, natural history, and the like.

Are You Amused?
More to my liking are museums that hark back to the original idea of a museum—a place where someone goes to listen to the muses…or to be amused in the sense of engaged, fascinated, or amazed. Early museums were gathering places for scholars, containing as they did rare artifacts that provided insights into a wide variety of people, places, and ideas. A couple of centuries ago, it was fashionable in some parts of Europe for wealthy, well-traveled men to keep a “cabinet of curiosities”—a collection of rare and exotic objects from around the world—with which they could impress their friends and prove their sophistication. Some of these cabinets grew into rooms, and later on developed from private collections into public institutions of their own. But as travel became easier and less expensive, many of these curiosities began to seem less curious. The primary role of a museum shifted to that of a place for keeping valuable art and historical artifacts safe, while making them available for public inspection.

But a few institutions kept alive the idea of displaying an eclectic collection of amazing objects from around the world in order to delight, inspire, and entertain visitors. Among the best examples are the dime museums from 19th-century America. Taking their name from their standard admission price, dime museums displayed bizarre, frequently grotesque specimens such as shrunken heads, two-headed animals (dead or alive), and other real or fabricated oddities of nature. They also featured live performances of many kinds, mostly in the vein of circus sideshows—the goat boy, the bearded lady, and so on. Part of the very appeal of dime museums was that visitors never quite knew how seriously to take any of it: if the things were real, they were impressive; if they were fake, they were still impressive, but for a different reason. Before movie theaters appeared, dime museums were some of the best and most economical entertainment an average citizen could buy.

Today, you can still find descendants of the dime museum in operation, such as the American Dime Museum in Baltimore, the Freakatorium in New York City, and the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Culver City, California. Ripley’s Believe It Or Not Museums also carry on that legacy in numerous cities around the world. Although they’re cheesy and touristy, they serve the all-important function of making visitors go, “Wow, I never imagined there could be such a thing!”

Something for Everyone
Ever since the days of show-and-tell in kindergarten, I’ve had a fondness for learning about new and interesting things, so eclectic collections like dime museums strike my fancy. But there’s another whole range of museums that focus very narrowly on just one kind of interesting thing. I couldn’t begin to list all of them, but here are a few examples:

  • The New Orleans Pharmacy Museum (pictured above) is housed in the former apothecary shop of Louis J. Dufilho, Jr., America’s first licensed pharmacist. It includes some very scary-looking Civil War-era surgical instruments, bottles of patent medicine, and other artifacts from the days when leeches, cocaine, and opium were among the standard cures for common illnesses.
  • The Museum of Pez Memorabilia in Burlingame, California contains more than 500 Pez dispensers, including rare pieces worth thousands of dollars.
  • The Glore Psychiatric Museum in St. Joseph, Missouri, housed in a former mental hospital, features exhibits relating to both the symptoms and treatment of mental illness over the years, including a display of objects mental patients have swallowed (nails, cutlery, and so on).
  • The Cockroach Museum of Plano, Texas, includes both living cockroaches and dead specimens that have been dressed up as characters (such as “Liberoachi”) in dioramas of roach art.
  • The Corkscrew Museum in Provence has more than 1,000 corkscrews of every shape and size. This is near the top of my list for a visit the next time I’m in France. (No kidding!)

There are hundreds of other examples, too—some tending toward the absurd and others with a more serious educational focus. But all of them meet an important need—showing visitors things they can’t find just anywhere, and exposing them to interesting ideas that are outside their normal experience.

The Virtual Museum of Interesting Things
You may not have realized it, but you’re standing (or sitting) in a museum right now. That’s how I like to think of Interesting Thing of the Day: an intriguing collection of more or less random curiosities—carefully catalogued, displayed, and described for your enjoyment. You don’t have to travel far to visit this museum; it’s conveniently located just about everywhere. As in any other museum, our exhibits change regularly. In order to keep visitors coming back, we sometimes rearrange our galleries, move certain pieces into or out of storage, or rework exhibits to keep them current. Each time you return, you’ll see some old things, some new things, and perhaps a renovation or two.

As your curator, I spend my time locating new items for the collection, researching each object’s background, and writing descriptions that help to interpret and explain the exhibits. In many museums, you can take an audio tour by carrying around a small device that plays recordings describing each item in more detail. You can do that here too, thanks to the Audio Edition of Interesting Thing of the Day. Want to get more information from a docent, or strike up a conversation with other visitors who share your interests? The comment section provides a virtual forum for that, too!

Every museum needs a means of support to pay its staff, maintain the facilities, and acquire new exhibits. In some cases, money comes from a city government, a foundation, or a wealthy benefactor. But smaller and quirkier museums usually rely on admission fees or voluntary donations from guests. Museums may ask visitors to consider becoming members, paying an annual fee in exchange for unlimited admission and other special benefits. We do these things as well…and of course, like many good museums, we have a gift shop in the lobby!

Interesting Thing of the Day is not, for the most part, about the bizarre or the unbelievable. It’s more like show-and-tell from a cabinet of curiosities that’s large enough to encompass ideas, historical events, other museums, and even things that might not exist. It’s here to amuse you—in the very best sense of the word. —Joe Kissell

More Information about Museums of Interesting Things…

Museums mentioned in this article:

Also check out Denny Daniel’s mobile Museum of Interesting Things in New York City!

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To learn more about Dime Museums, read Weird & Wonderful: The Dime Museum in America by Andrea Stulman Dennett.