Our theme for the month of June is “Top Ten.”

Warning: This post contains images that might be disturbing. I have curated these images for educational purposes—as we might presume is the reason for their continued preservation in the museums—and not a ghoulish fascination.

I never saw Bodies: The Exhibition. It is a series of preserved human bodies, stripped bare of one layer or another to highlight muscle, nervous system, blood vessels, lungs that have smoked, etc. It’s for educational purposes. It shows us what we are underneath.

I remember fearing, in elementary school, that I would be compelled to experience Bodies on a field trip. “That’s not the kind of museum I like,” I thought. But that’s all museums: some nakedness, under glass, to edify us via the unparalleled magnetism of fear and fascination. 

We love horror. We’ll pay to see it. We might learn something from it. So, museums keep it. Some museums recently shared their #CreepiestObject. Here’s my list of the best and why, perhaps, we keep this stuff.

10. Lincoln’s blood: Museums are probably at least forty percent tomb. Relics are important to us. And Lincoln is worthy of veneration. 

9. Prohibition automaton: This is educational. It shows us our past, what we argued for, how we persuade. This is worth preserving, scary as it is. 

8. Owl monster: Monster lore. Is there a more valuable self-portrait? 

7. Bigfoot butt print: Seriously. I find it hysterical. Humor is worth a place on the list, right?

6. Mysterious doll: There are plenty of dolls in this hashtag. But why keep this? It appeared in an exhibit without context or cause. It doesn’t seem to be educational. Possession is nine-tenths of the law, I guess, and at least nine-tenths of value. We found it. We’ll keep it. Because it is ours now. We hoard. 

5. Mermaid: We make horrible things. We must remember that, right? 

4. Bottle bat: This is a place-holder. I’ve stumbled across something too creepy to share. Something I do not want to be affixed to my name in any way online. I wish I hadn’t seen it. I don’t want it to be part of this story I’m telling. So this list is now not the creepiest, or the most interesting, or the most valuable. Just what’s fit for print. The best of the worst. If there is a best to be gleaned from the worst. Why am I looking at this? We shouldn’t keep some things.

3. Andy Warhol’s mummified foot: Not the foot of Andy Warhol. A piece of a person possessed by a man who made Marylin Monroe, and Campbell’s soup, and Mao, all a commodity to be produced and owned. And that is emblematic of this whole exercise, isn’t it? We venerate our power to possess in halls of marble and bone.

2. Statues: I saw the Looking at Ourselves: Rethinking the Sculptures of Malvina Hoffman exhibit by accident. It’s in the Field Museum in Chicago. Its current title is long and defensive. It used to be called The Races of Mankind. It was commissioned in the 1930s—a room of statues depicting people, categorized based on physical characteristics. It’s racist. The Field has kept it. To be educational. Stuffed shamefully in a room by the bathrooms. I don’t see it in the hashtags. But I remember a statue of a woman with a baby on her back. Beautiful. And wrong. Because the statue is not all women. Or all women of her culture. You can see it in her face, the overwhelming, rattling truth that the statue depicts one woman. And we do not know her name. The plaque below her was the first one I read. I realized what I was looking at. I left. 

1. Pins: I have my own little museum. I keep everything. The strangest thing I have is a collection of a half-dozen pins. There’s one from the anniversary of the founding of Jamestown, Virginia. Commemorating the colonization my ancestors participated in. A flag lapel pin with the flag sticker on lopsided, appropriately. My relationship with my country is complicated. A commemorative pin from my time competing in high school speech and debate. I don’t want to be my high-school self again—arrogant, self-righteous, mean. I’m not sure I am proud to claim these past selves or this history any longer. Do I keep them as a reminder to do better?  

As statues around the country pitch into the water, like a peace offering to some aggrieved spirit, I think of the Titanic museum in Branson, Missouri and all the things we’ve dredged up and disturbed. 

The Titanic museum assigns each visitor a boarding pass with a real passenger’s name. As you walk through the recreated decks and examine the things wrestled from the coral and sand, you see “your” sleeping quarters, “your” dishes, “your” lifeboat. At the end, you look for “your” name among the survivors. It is surprisingly moving. In every museum and artifact, it is always ourselves, our story, underneath.

The security guard who found me, wandering after closing time, ushered me out. 

“Ka-thunk, ka-thunk, ka-thunk,” went the lights in the corridors behind me. I didn’t see everything, but I may not go back. 

Let’s certainly drag all our nakedness from behind plexiglass and fig tree into the light. 

Let’s look. Let’s see what muscle fibers propelled us forward. Let us see the gnarled mass of twitching, raw nerves. Let us see the tumors.

And when we’ve seen, let’s allow the waters to rush in. Let’s turn off the lights. Let’s fold up the burial clothes. Let’s own up to what we should not own. And let’s bury it.

3 Comments

  1. Avatar

    My favorite weird museum item from when I worked at the Ford Museum was a voodoo doll that someone sent President Ford (cause they keep all the random stuff that people send to the White House as “gifts”… or at least they did in the 1970s) with a booklet of spells that included an “alleged spell for attracting sexual prowness” beginning with the instruction, “you want plenty sex, you take honey and pepper mix well.” Not so much creepy as just weird and hilarious.

    Reply
  2. Avatar

    #8 is a hoot in all the wrong ways. I’m sure Gabe Gunnink would agree!

    Reply
  3. Kyric Koning

    This could have been a mere list a unusual objects, but you took the time to develop these seemingly innocuous items into deep, thought-provoking outline. Your opener and closer are the perfect bookends to a delightful journey who makes lovely pit-stops.

    And the societal commentary? Nice. Humans in all their weirdness, all their beauty, all their flaws. Accepting and refuting that. Wonderful.

    Reply

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