Hideous Objects Become Museum Art

— Knock on Loren Coleman's door. Ask to see his life-size replica of Bigfoot. He'll be expecting you.

Coleman, 56, has been chasing Bigfoot all his adult life, collecting footprints, hair samples, even mysterious animal droppings that can't be identified — all in the quest to prove the existence of the legendary beast.

Now, Coleman is opening the doors of his home in Portland, Maine, to Bigfoot lovers and anyone else who wants to research monsters found primarily in straight-to-video movies.

"Unicorns and werewolves don't exist. They're just in fables," says Coleman, who just finished his 20th book on the paranormal, Bigfoot: The True Story of Apes in America (Simon and Schuster)

"Bigfoot is different," he says. "There's so much evidence that needs to be examined, so many sightings … When's the last time anyone said they saw a unicorn?"

Jackalope Hunting

Surrounding Coleman's furry, 8 ½-foot Bigfoot replica are bizarre reminders of public gullibility — including P.T. Barnum's "Feejee Mermaid."

In 1842, Barnum proclaimed that he had obtained a "half monkey/half fish" and for a while, it was a national sensation, with circus crowds waiting for hours for just a glimpse of it.

Now, an exact replica of the Feejee Mermaid is just a decoration in Coleman's home. It's about as real as Coleman's mounted jackalope — a rabbit with deer horns concocted by playful taxidermists.

But Coleman intends his home to be a serious center for cryptozoology— the study of legendary creatures — and he boasts a library with more than 20,000 books on the subject. He's already working with nearby Bates College on holding the first international cryptozoology symposium in 2005.

"I've put half my retirement savings in this," says Coleman, who has worked over the years as a psychiatric social worker as well as an anthropology instructor and researcher, most recently at the University of Southern Maine and University of New England, to supplement his income as a monster hunter.

"This museum represents a lifetime of work."

Ode to the Banana How far will people come to look at unidentified animal droppings and Coleman's other treasures? Can his museum gain any recognition?

It's not impossible. Across America there are hundreds of museums — some of them private and run out people's homes — where you'll find such esoteric treasures as George Washington's dentures and the ambulance that gave Lee Harvey Oswald his final ride.

"There's always been a tradition of people opening their homes and showing their 'cabinet of curiosities' to the public," says Saul Rubin, author of Offbeat Museums (Santa Monica Press).

"In fact, many museum collections began as private collections that seemed downright peculiar, especially at the time."

It's amazing how devoted some people can be. Karen Bannister's International Banana Museum in Altadena, Calif., boasts some 17,000 artifacts, including a petrified banana and a banana Muppet designed by Jim Henson.

Rubin details how some of the strangest private collections have received accolades. Unbelievably, researchers from Washington's Smithsonian Institution have visited and even praised the man from Maryland who started the Museum of Menstruation.

Likewise, the Museum of Questionable Medical Devices, once run from the private office of a man in Minneapolis, is now a popular display in a major St. Paul museum.

"These museums have been around since colonial times, and they do now what they did then," says Rubin.

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