25 May 2021

The Best Closet


     Earlier this month, O'Neil De Noux wrote about the death mask of Napoleon on display at the Cabildo in New Orleans. The article got me reminiscing. I've always liked museums, the ones with stuff rather than just art. The good ones tell stories. As a child, the Pettigrew Museum in Sioux Fallas was a might bike ride from my house. The old Victorian house held a fascination for me. It was a great old closet, full of Native American arrowheads, geodes and other rocks, and the implements with which the settlers scratched out a living on the Great Plains. 

Jerry, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, 

via Wikimedia Commons

    The great museums are must-see tourist stops. They can also be overwhelming. I've taken power naps on the lawns of some of the world's great exhibit halls after plodding through floors of priceless artifacts. Today I shall praise the small museum. They tell a specific story. These museums help people to find the treasure in their own backyard. They are often staffed by people who care deeply about their niche subject. A little bit of customer interest makes them giddy.

    Not far from the Cabildo, just down Chartres Street in the French Quarter, is the New Orleans Pharmacy Museum. Shelves chockablock with glass dispensing bottles, the labels listing the original ingredients. Louisiana was the first state to license apothecaries. The state was cutting edge for health practices. But it was also New Orleans so they dispensed voodoo. The museum focuses on 18th and 19th-century health care. This isn't the Metropolitan Museum; a visitor won't be here all day. But as people who occasionally think about poisons, this could be your spot. 

    One caveat: The docent-guided tour helped me see things I would have missed. He pointed out Love Potion #9 as well as the ceramic jar near the cash register holding the leeches. The website says that guided tours are suspended during the pandemic. Perhaps they'll be back again by Bouchercon. 

    If you find yourself near the western entrance to Yellowstone National Park, consider visiting the Idaho Potato Museum in Blackfoot, Idaho. You'll know you've arrived when you get to the potato sculpture out front. The price of admission included a package of freeze-dried hash browns when my family and I visited. Shockingly, they didn't have any other visitors that afternoon. The attendant at the register was happy to talk about the exhibits. Want to see the world's largest potato crisp? She'll make sure that you don't miss it. 

    If you're passing through west Texas, stop by the Odessa Meteor Crater Museum. There you'll see...a meteor crater. Or you will if you hurry. Originally 115 feet deep, the winds of the last 65,000 years have filled the crater with sand. It is now only 15 feet deep. Your time is limited. 

    Last October, my wife and I were driving through New England checking out the fall foliage. On Main Street in Winstead, Connecticut stood a grand building. The sign out front identified it as the American Museum of Tort Law. Sadly, COVID-19 had it shuttered. Small surprise, I suppose. I'd expect a tort museum to think about potential liability. A virtual tour is available through the website. I'll be back if only to check out the gift shop. 

    Museums make great locations for mystery tales. The Smithsonian and the Louvre have been the setting countless times. By their nature, museums hold rare things. Even in the specialty museums, the collections are valuable to someone. Museums have quirky exhibits. If you want to bump someone off with a Lakota Sioux arrowhead, have them visit the Pettigrew. And never underestimate the lethality of a potato fork. 

    To safeguard the collections and to simplify ticket sales, access in and out of a museum is limited. A diverse group of people gathers there. Tourists from various walks of life collect at museums mingling with locals. Museums store secrets from the past. They host social events, weddings, parties, and fundraisers. Elegantly dressed people attend soirees at them. Or they will again soon. Intrigue and mayhem easily follow. 

    A museum closely based on the Idaho Potato Museum provides the setting for "The Case of the Brain Tuber," my story in the current Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. I rely upon all the elements of a museum: the social center, limited access and, the odd assortment of items collected to tell the story. 

    In March, Mystery Weekly published "Exhibiting Signs of Death," a story set in an imagined tort law museum. I've had a good year placing my stories in exhibit halls. I'm glad that museums are opening again. I look forward to visiting. 

    If you're thinking about Bouchercon 2022, pencil in the Spam Museum in Austin, Minnesota. 

    Until next time. 

9 comments:

  1. All right. Cool. I have something about the New Orleans Pharmacy Museum in my next posting. You're right, small museums are a treasure. Good post.

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    1. An avalanche of publicity for the Pharmacy Museum.

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  2. This was fun and intriguing. You have my brain working. Thank you!

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  3. Love the post. I have a friend - Allyson Nagel of A.N. Original - who has a piece of art in the Spam Museum. Check it out sometime!

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  4. Mark, I just finished reading your story ("The Case of the Brain Tuber") in the May/June 2021 issue of AHMM and wondered where the background came from. Now I know. Good one.

    In Custer, SD, in the Black Hills is a county museum that has part of the tree that vigilantes hung Lame Johnny (a Texas horse thief) from for robbing stage coaches between Buffalo Gap and Deadwood.

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  5. A tree limb. The treasure in our own backyard.

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  6. The Brain Tuber… that's too good, Mark. Congratulations!

    Spam and potato museums? Couldn't just about anyone create a potato sculpture? It's essentially a lump, isn't it? Unless they added Mr Potatohead eyes and mustache, then that's art.

    Spam and eggs… I've visted an egg museum. Well, to be fair, it's a FabergĂ© Egg Museum in NYC, 12th Street and 5th Avenue in Greenwich Village. The exhibits are from the Michael Forbes collection. Further FabergĂ© Egg Museums can be found in Europe and Russia.

    For a long time, I was drawn to ship and sailing museums as well as car museums. I also visited Rodin Museums. However, my most distinctive memory was visiting the Children's Museum in Indianapolis when I was a child. Just inside the entrance they had a T-rex skeleton. THAT was impressive for a little kid.

    Congratulations on your stories, Mark!

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