A Museum of Odds and the concept of museums

There is a Ripley’s Believe it or Not odditorium some 20 minutes from where I live – an establishment that displays a collection of bizarre items, ranging from a two-headed calf to real human shrunken heads to the replica of a tree in which a hurricane threw a sleeping baby that remained unharmed and still sleeping, some 50 years ago. Robert Ripley was a cartoonist and an adventurer, as well as self-proclaimed “amateur anthropologist” who presented such items in his radio show and newspaper career and later founded a chain of museums of odds where they were to be displayed.

Surprisingly, this visit gave me an amazing portion of food for thought. To be sure, these are artifacts that you most likely know about – just like in a regular museum. They are not necessarily all authentic items, but isn’t this also valid for usual museums, too? The concept of a museum is a physical space where you go to commune with history, to be intellectually reminded of certain events or phenomena, to be emotionally stimulated by your physical contact with the material expression of a certain idea and understand it at another level. 

It’s true that the odditorium does not follow a specific concept or a time period. It’s a hodge podge collection of bizarre things from here and there.  But that’s what actually stirred my intellectual excitement.  It’s a place where you are expected to be shocked, but instead of then also understanding  the world better with the help of, say, with an exhibit dedicated to the phenomenon of polycephaly, you are supposed to stay shocked. You are supposed to leave still mystified, with the idea that the world is a strange place.

And even though my visit didn’t help elucidate my understanding of the world, the range of the objects in the collection gave me an idea about the creators’ worldview, by letting me know what they themselves find strange and beyond the reach or necessity of explanation. It’s the perfect museum of a child’s mind and of commons sense, with no offense intended for either. Ripley didn’t get a formal education and his chain of odditoriums is the embodiment of quintessential attitude of a pre-educated person.

On the other hand, Ripley also received an honorary degree from Dartmouth College and other universities. True, isn’t education also the ability to ask yourself questions, to see enigmas ready to be solvedwhere others see just the old normal run of things? Yes, but precisely because education is the tool to ask question and find solution, the museum cripples this attitude with its the false security it gives viewers that they’ve explored the world and have a grasp of reality through a quick run of it bizarreness. It’s not a tool to explore and understand, it’s a merry-go-round of “huhs”.

I thought that these odditoriums – or should they rather be, grammatically correctly, odditoria – hail from a fading era, the era of the traveling circus and the freak show, when people didn’t have internet yet enjoyed the simple pleasure of being shocked by unusual happenings. Indeed, Ripley’s hay days were in the mid 20th century, but while he died just after WWII, the franchise of odditoriums not only didn’t fade away, but instead proliferated and is now an international venture. All this without the benefit of public funding or charitable giving that museums usually rely on to survive. This speaks volumes.

And that’s actually logical as an attitude that still thrives. Isn’t the internet giving us the false security that with the hodge podge of information at our disposal at all time we also have better knowledge?


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