I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

Obsession to Institution: Unusual Museums

by Jody Elphick
May 16, 2013

If you thought museums were always filled with dinosaur bones, butterfly cases and oil portraits, your life has been more or less empty. It turns out there are museums dedicated to toothpicks, hair, old planetarium projectors, pinball machines, cockroaches in fancy dress, and dog collars.

But what makes these exhibits anything more than a collection of someone else's junk? What is a museum? The American Association of Museums stipulates a 'unique contribution to the public by collecting, preserving, and interpreting the things of this world’. It's also considered good museum practice to be non-profitmaking. Personally, my take on it is that if someone wants to gather together a collection of lunchboxes [link to http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/Museums-With-Their-Own-Niche.html], open it up to anyone who's interested and call it a museum, that's good enough for me. But does that mean I could open a Museum of Broken Sporks? My bags may be lined with such exhibits, but would they really teach anyone anything about the world or my interpretation of it? Presumably a museum should not come about by accident, and it's partly the motivation behind these eccentric collections that makes them so fascinating.

Suggestions abound as to what propels a person from being interested in toothpicks to wanting to acquire more toothpicks to opening Toothpickworld. Thanks to Wikipedia, there's no need to have any expert knowledge in order to pass judgment on the psychology of collecting, so let's get analysing.

Reliving childhood

In Molly Atkinson's case, she began with the innocent purchase of a single pinball machine and gradually progressed to the stage at which she was actually replacing useful furniture with games. Eventually there was no more room at the inn and a 'museum' beckoned. Now she spends most evenings hanging out in her self-created pinball arcade [link to www.pinsandneedlesla.com] in a band practice warehouse in LA, tweaking Hollywood Heat's motherboard and beating her own high scores on Jungle Queen. Maybe it's just because I spend most of my evenings remaining as stationary as possible on a sofa until it's time to brush my teeth, but Molly's life sounds pretty much like the teenage dream to me.

Connecting with an unattainable time or place

If one particular moment in history or legend resonates with you, what better way to connect with that otherwise inaccessible era than to create a gigantic shrine to it? The Museum of Conjuring Arts [link to http://conjuringarts.org] has amassed a library of books about magic, including some very ancient and mystical-sounding tomes. You can see how, if you spent your whole life reading books like Lord of Legerdemain: The Renaissance Magick of Marcom The Mountebank, even such mundane tasks as choosing between two not-quite-ripe-enough avocados at the supermarket might take on a mystical quality.

Easing anxiety about losing a part of yourself

I don't like to mention the curator of the world's largest collection of banana memorabilia underneath this heading, I really don't, but needs must. Fred Garbutt (a man who must surely have eBay alerts set for "banana", "banana-shaped" AND "banana-flavored") proudly boasts that he "hung every banana" in his eccentric yellow collection. However it wasn't actually Fred who originally amassed most of the items in this collection, but Ken Bannister, who created the original museum and then sold the lot to Fred when his city of residence decreed it. It turns out that Fred's initial motive in buying the objects was to bring more customers into his liquor store. Perhaps less realistically, he also hoped to promote his tennis court resurfacing business (potentially changing the business' name from the understandably named Aces Court Construction to the more baffling Bananas Court Construction.) And his ambitions don't end there. "Once we started looking at the kinds of banana-printed clothing out there, we realized there's not a lot," he told Gawker. "Who knows how big the market is." Clearly a man with an eye for business potential.

Reclaiming the faeces you were forced to flush down the toilet as an infant

That was Freud's explanation.

Pop psychology aside, I wanted to get a first-person perspective on the reasons for collecting, so I wrote to Harriet Fink, who has created the Curiovan [link to www.curiovan.org] (a touring vintage caravan filled with curiosities of the natural world). "I find it satisfying looking at the small differences that make each thing its own, yet how they fit together into a world of similarities," she wrote back. "Perhaps that is why I feel the compulsion to 'own' them rather than just be happy knowing they are there – so they can be seen comparatively." But she also acknowledges a certain desire for omnipotence: "Perhaps it is also to do with wanting the status of ownership or a hope of somehow absorbing some of their qualities by being 'mine'."

It's easy to ask about the motivation to collect, but for those who do it, it's not necessarily even a conscious act. In the catalogue for the first Museum of Everything exhibition, founder James Brett talks about that museum's namesake, the original Museum of Everything on the Isle of Wight, which was essentially the open house of an old man and his enormous collection of miscellaneous objects. "Because he called it a museum, people turned up to see it, but what it really was, was a giant artwork his obsessive nature had accumulated."

Whether artwork, obsession or study project, there must be something soothing about collecting just one type of thing. Knowing that your life is basically about bananas must drown out a lot of confusion. You'd never have to waste time looking at apple-shaped consumer goods again! Now there's peace of mind.


1 What, if anything, is a museum? http://name-aam.org/uploads/downloadables/EXH.spg_11/5%20EXH_spg11_What,%20if%20Anything,%20Is%20a%20Museum__Dillenburg.pdf

2 http://www.dailymail.co.uk/travel/article-1260360/Top-weird-museums-world.html

3 http://www.toothpickworld.com/

4 www.pinsandneedlesla.com

5 Meet The Guy and His Mom Who Saved The International Banana Museum http://gawker.com/5514809/meet-the-guy-and-his-mom-who-saved-the-international-banana-museum

6 Conversation with Paolo Colombo in The Museum of Everything 1 catalogue

Jody Elphick is an editor and writer who lives in London. Her hibernating blog is at www.guardiangirl.com and you can follow her on Twitter @theguardiangirl, although don't expect any tweets.