Museum’s fictions stranger than truth
Most curators dream of stocking their museums with Picassos, Rodins or golden treasure from the pharaohs’ tombs.
But James Taylor, who runs what he and partner Dick Horne bill as the world’s only museum devoted to novelty and exotic performance, has always had other ideas about what makes a good exhibit. “You get me a 300-pound guy clog-dancing on top of a bunch of olive-oil jars, and I’m there,” he said. “That’s art.”
The founders of the 3-year-old American Dime Museum have built their gallery on the theory that others are also tired of the dusty dinosaur bones and expensive paintings moldering in marble-columned halls. They invite anyone with five bucks -- and a healthy sense of the absurd -- to come to their Baltimore museum and gaze on the corpse of the amazing 9-foot-tall Peruvian Amazon mummy, to marvel at the mysterious Feegee Mermaid (half monkey, half fish) and, if you wander into the little row house on the right day, to take a turn pounding a 4-inch nail into a human blockhead’s nose.
The Dime Museum gets its name from the carnival-like museums of the 19th century where, for the price of a dime, truth was stretched thinner than the taffy sold on a carnival midway. “Is it real?” customers often excitedly ask Horne and Taylor as they examine what are described as George Washington’s false eyelashes, the fragile-looking black prostheses propped up on two small pieces of wood. The curators only answer with smiles.
“Is it fake?” customers ask about Abraham Lincoln’s dried-up, deathbed excrement mounted in a hanging glass-fronted case. Then they spot a letter nearby debunking the sample, saying an analysis found evidence of food not invented until decades after the president’s death.
“People don’t mind being humbugged, as long as they’re being let in on the joke,” said Horne, paraphrasing 19th century American showman P.T. Barnum.
“Not knowing how much of what you’re seeing is real is most of the fun. You have to use your sense of humor and sense of judgment.” Every year, thousands willingly suspend their disbelief and gawk at the stuffed unicorn goat that once toured with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey.
They gaze, mouths agape, at the shriveled right hand of Spider Lillie, a 19th century English prostitute who released spiders from a compartment in her ring to kill her enemies. “Have you seen the Turkin?” asked 9-year-old Tyler Falkenhan, wide-eyed. “It’s half turkey, half chicken. Very cool.”
Charon Henning, who volunteers at the museum as an archivist, said she enjoys watching how people react to the bizarre artifacts bursting from the display cases. “The reaction from first-timers coming in ranges from ‘What am I getting into?’ to ‘This is the coolest thing I’ve ever seen,’ ” Henning said.
Despite the fantastic, often hard-to-believe displays, Horne and Taylor say their collection shares the same roots as the Smithsonian Institution in Washington and other mainstream museums. In the 19th century, people depended on museums for their entertainment.
From tiny roadside shacks to big-city galleries, the idea was to get people in the doors by offering exotic exhibits from the far corners of the world. “All forms of museums grew out of the original dime museums,” Horne said.
“They all were responding to what the public wanted to see. If that called for sewing a monkey and a fish together to make a Feegee Mermaid, that’s what they’d do.”
Movies, and then television, killed the dime museums, and many bigger, more respected museums soon changed gears, veering from common spectacle toward the higher art for which they are known today.
The last real dime museum, Huber’s Museum in Times Square, sputtered out around 1976, Horne said. Horne and Taylor resuscitated the form in 1999, bent on maintaining the long tradition of never letting the truth get in the way of a good display.
In the museum’s basement, volunteer Craig Coletta helps guide people through a sideshow exhibit featuring a devil-man mummy; Grace, the Mule-Faced Woman; and Fivey, the Five-Legged Dog.
Coletta, who works weekdays as a conflict mediator, also lets interested customers pound nails into his nasal cavity as part of his human blockhead routine, once a staple of sideshows and dime museums.
“We’re keeping alive a dying art form,” Coletta said, smiling, the head of a four-inch nail reflecting the sideshow’s lights as it protruded from his nostril. “After all these years, people still like to look at weird stuff. We’re not that much different than our ancestors 150 years ago.”