- The Washington Times - Monday, November 11, 2002

BALTIMORE Most curators dream of stocking their museums with Picassos, Rodins or golden treasure from the pharaohs' tombs.
But James Taylor, who runs what he and partner Dick Horne bill as the world's only museum devoted to novelty and exotic performance, has always had other ideas about what makes a good exhibit.
"You get me a 300-pound guy clog-dancing on top of a bunch of olive-oil jars and I'm there," he said. "That's art."
The founders of the 3-year-old American Dime Museum have built their gallery on the theory that others are also tired of the dusty dinosaur bones and expensive paintings in marble-columned halls.
They invite anyone with $5 and a healthy sense of the absurd to come to their Baltimore museum and gaze on the corpse of the amazing 9-foot Peruvian Amazon mummy; marvel at the mysterious Feegee Mermaid half-monkey, half-fish; and, if you wander into the little row house on the right day, to take a turn pounding a 4-inch nail into a human blockhead's nose.
The Dime Museum gets its name from the carnival-like museums of the 19th century, where, for a dime, truth was stretched thinner than the taffy sold on a carnival midway.
"Is it real?" customers often excitedly ask Mr. Horne and Mr. Taylor as they examine what are described as George Washington's false eyelashes, the fragile-looking black prostheses propped up on two small pieces of wood. The curators answer only with smiles.
"People don't mind being humbugged as long as they're being let in on the joke," said Mr. Horne, paraphrasing 19th-century American showman P.T. Barnum. "Not knowing how much of what you're seeing is real is most of the fun. You have to use your sense of humor and sense of judgment."
Every year, thousands willingly suspend their disbelief and gawk at the stuffed unicorn goat that once toured with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey. They gaze, gape-mouthed, at the shriveled right hand of Spider Lillie, a 19th-century English prostitute who released spiders from a compartment in her ring to kill her enemies.
"Have you seen the 'turkin'?" asks 9-year-old Tyler Falkenhan, wide-eyed. "It's half-turkey, half-chicken. Very cool."
Charon Henning, who volunteers at the museum as an archivist, said she enjoys watching how people react to the bizarre artifacts bursting from the display cases.
Despite the fantastic, often hard-to-believe displays, Mr. Horne and Mr. Taylor say their collection shares roots with the Smithsonian Institution in Washington and other mainstream museums.
In the 19th century, people depended on museums for their entertainment. From tiny roadside shacks to big-city galleries, the name of the game was to get people in the doors by offering exotic exhibits from the far corners of the world.
"All forms of museums grew out of the original dime museums," Mr. Horne said. "They all were responding to what the public wanted to see. If that called for sewing a monkey and a fish together to make a Feegee Mermaid, that's what they'd do."
The last real dime museum, Huber's Museum in New York's Times Square, sputtered out around 1976, Mr. Horne said.
Mr. Horne and Mr. Taylor resuscitated the form in 1999, bent on maintaining the long tradition of never letting the truth get in the way of a good display.
In the museum's basement, volunteer Craig Coletta helps guide people through a sideshow exhibit featuring a devil-man mummy; Grace, the mule-faced oman; and Fivey, the five-legged dog.
Mr. Coletta also lets interested customers pound nails into his nasal cavity as part of his human blockhead routine.
"We're keeping alive a dying art form," Mr. Coletta said, smiling, the head of a four-inch nail reflecting the sideshow's lights as it protrudes from his right nostril.

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