Putting the muse back in 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 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.
Something for Everyone
Today, you can still find descendants of the dime museum in operation, such as the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Culver City, California and the Ripley’s Believe It Or Not museums, which 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!”
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. It just so happens we have a list of 43 Weirdly Specific Museums, with entire collections devoted to objects such as antique pharmaceutical supplies, toilets, bricks, and Pez dispensers. 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. (There’s also at least one museum that comes to you: the aptly named Museum of Interesting Things in New York.)
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. 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.
Note: This is an updated version of an article that originally appeared on Interesting Thing of the Day on June 1, 2004.
Source: Interesting Thing of the Day