Wednesday, September 28, 2005

UPDATED: The Museum of the Hard-to-Believe

UPDATE: Doh! My buddy Greg left a comment here that Johnny has closed the Freakatorium (see below) and moved to Connecticut with his wife. I posted back in June that he was closing, but when I checked the Web site I saw nothing about it and I assumed that he had somehow managed to stay open (silly me, to assume people update their Web sites when they actually SHUT DOWN PERMANENTLY).


Kudos again to the Web, whose intricate and organic linking structure yielded the idea for this post, a journey into unusual museums.

BoingBoing has a fun post about, a neat repository of lore and info about sword swallowing. They even have an extensive list of contemporary sword swallowers, including Prague's own Emil Ondracek, (who I used to watch all the time during my own fabulist days in this most extraordinary city) and my old acquaintance Johnny Fox.

Johnny is also the owner/curator of the Freakatorium (El Museo Loco) in Manhattan, a direct descendent to the "Cabinets of Curiosities" that used to grace every major city worthy of the name. Johnny's amazing collection of oddities and freak-related memorabilia includes sideshow banners, Tom Thumb's clothes, P.T. Barnum's "Fiji Mermaid," and Sammy Davis Jr.'s glass eye. I haven't been to New York for about a decade and I have yet to visit the Freakatorium, but it's definitely on my short list of things to do when I make it back.

Thinking about the Czech Republic (which, for my less geography-centric readers, is in fact where Prague is located) reminded me of the jaw-dropping Sedlec Ossuary in the Czech town of Kutna Hora. This world-famous church is decorated with the bones of about 40,000 inhabitants of the cemetery that used to lie underneath it. Check out the coat of arms and the chandalier; this place is definitely worth a visit!

Mystery writer John Connelly has a lovely article about Sedlec; he was so taken with the place that he featured it in his latest book, The Black Angel.

And while you're in Kutna Hora, be sure to take a stroll over to the new Museum of Alchemy.

Another legendary museum I've not yet visited is the Mutter Museum, run by the College of Physicians of Philadelphia (which, for my really non-geography-centric readers, is in the eastern part of the United States, close to Colorado). From the site:

The Museum's collections include over 20,000 objects, including approximately 900 fluid-preserved anatomical and pathological specimens; 10,000+ medical instruments and apparati, primarily dating between 1750 and the present; ca. 400 anatomical and pathological models in plaster, wax, papier mache, and plastic; ca. 200 items of memorabilia of famous scientists and physicians; and ca. 1500 medical illustrations in the form of lantern slides, 35 mm. slides, photographs, drawings, and prints

The Mutter is most famous for it's "fluid-preserved anatomical and pathological specimens" (there's a fun description here), but they also have an excellent OB-GYN Instrument Collection, among other medical historical curiosities. Currently, they are running an exhibit on conjoined twins.

I've saved the best for last. No visit to Los Angeles is complete without a visit to the Museum of Jurassic Technology (MJT), an educational institution dedicated to the advancement of knowledge and the public appreciation of the Lower Jurassic. MJT is a tough place to describe; it's a "cabinet of curiosities" in a similar vein to the Freakatorium and the Mutter, but it's also a meta-museum, a museum about museums. The exhibits at MJT are as much about the elusive nature of knowledge and the arbitrary construction of reality as they are about forgotten neurophysiologist Geoffery Sonnabend or the little-known megolaponera foetens, a stink-ant from Cameroon.

I first visited the Museum of Jurassic Technology about fifteen years ago, after reading about it in local artsy paper the L.A. Weekly. My friend Mark and I found the non-descript storefront on Venice Boulevard and wandered in. The proprietor, a soft-spoken simian-looking man named David Wilson greeted us calmly (the place was otherwise empty), took our money, and then suggested we start with the introductory movie.

From there things got strange and stayed that way. I'll not describe what we saw; best to visit yourself and find out. Deliriously gifted writer Lawrence Weschler was so taken with MJT that he wrote Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Wonders, a loving examination of the museum and it's creator. Weschler also co-produced a beautiful Sound Portrait on MJT that's as good a place as any to start your own exploration.

Since my visit, David Wilson has won a MacArthur "genius grant" Fellowship, expanded the physical space considerably, and earned himself a devoted cult of followers. I consider the Museum of Jurassic Technology to be one of the great conceptual masterpieces of this century, and I urge everyone to check it out if you go to Los Angeles (which, as my more geography-centric readers well know, is an easy forty-five minutes southeast of Orlando, Florida).


Special Honorary mention to the first reader who can identify the geeky pop-culture origin of this post's title.


Jeff said...

Let's ask Larry Bud Melman.

PeaceLove said...

Nailed it! Yes, it's from an early bit on the David Letterman show, circa 1983, maybe?

Jeff said...

Sometime back then. I remember once when Dave re-ran the first week of his show, it was amazing who he'd had on before he got big.

Anonymous said...

Johnny Fox's Freakatorium is closed. Johnny and his wife Valaria have moved to Connecticut.

- Greg

Jodi B. said...

Hey, It's Jodi, Greg's wife (Greg is mentioned at the beginning of this post).

I saw Johnny swallow swords at the Maryland Renaissance Festival this past weekend. Since he's a buddy, I went up & chatted with him after the show. He told me they'd bought a house in Conn. (By the way, his wife, Valeria, and he got married on the back of an elephant at the Maryland Renaissance Festival, I think that was 2 years ago. Very cool, huh?)

Anyway, the Freakatorium collection is currently on display at the Maryland Renaissance Festival in the Dungeon or the Living History Pavilion -- not sure which. Johnny mentioned it in his show but I was distracted by my newborn at that moment and didn't memorize it.

Johnny owns many of the things at the faire like Thor's hammer, the Dungeon, and countless sweet nuts booths. (You haven't lived until you've tasted Johnny's nuts -- just kidding / couldn't resist.)

Best wishes to all!