Hideous Objects Become Museum Art

Sept. 9, 2003 -- -- — 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 BananaHow 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.

"They amaze us and educate us. That's the whole point of a museum."

Here's a look at some of America's strangest collections. Among other things, they prove there's hope for Coleman's Cryptozoology Museum, even if that neurotic loner Bigfoot never shows his face.

Odd Museum Gallery

Pathological Pleasures at the Mütter: Looking for the preserved body parts of major historical figures? How about a presidential tumor?

The Mütter Museum boasts a cancerous growth secretly removed from Grover Cleveland's chin in 1893, during his second term in office.

The tumor, given to the Mütter after Cleveland's death, now floats in preservative, not far from bladder stones removed from Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall and a tissue specimen of John Wilkes Booth.

As far back as 1849, the College of Physicians of Philadelphia had a collection of "pathological specimens" for its members to view.

But six years later, when Dr. Thomas Dent Mütter retired and donated his vast private collection of diseased tissue, the college earned a national reputation, and now boasts more than 900 preserved specimens.

Among the most popular attractions: The shared liver of the world-famous conjoined twins Chang and Eng, who were billed internationally as "Siamese twins."

How did the sideshow stars end their lives as a museum attraction? In 1874, doctors from the college performed the autopsy on Chang and Eng and were allowed to keep the curious organ.

The Most Unusual Museum — Period: You probably don't need to visit Maryland's Museum of Menstruation more than once a month, where you'll find the midriffs of mannequins suspended from the ceiling, modeling feminine hygiene products from around the world, some more than 100 years old.

The displays of mid-20th-century hygiene equipment from the old Soviet Union are said to be barbaric enough to convince any woman of the virtues of capitalism.

Among the treasures: A 1914 Sears catalog advertising a rubber "sanitary apron" along with displays illustrating the evolution of Kotex sanitary napkins, developed from surgical bandages by World War II Army nurses.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about the Museum of Menstruation (or MOM, as it's called) is its founder and curator — Harry Finley, a 60-year-old bachelor who works for the Pentagon as a graphic designer.

Finley runs the museum from his basement and says he just wants to demystify and remove the stigma from feminine hygiene.

A Smithsonian researcher has praised his collection as a valuable piece of pop culture, and so has others. But Finley has his critics, including Sassy magazine, which told him, "Stick to jock itch products, buddy."

Quacks Can't Duck this Exhibit: Out of shape? No problem. Just scrub away those pesky excess inches with some weight-loss soap. Of course, you'll want a foot-powered breast pump to put those inches back where they belong.

What now? All that self-improvement makes your husband feel inadequate? There's just the right gizmo for him, too.

Even before the advent of the late-night infomercial, fast-talking salesmen have been hawking dubious products, and you can see the best of them all at Minnesota's Museum of Questionable Medical Devices, or as it's frequently called, "The Quackatorium."

Even in the late 19th century, men sought the all-elusive washboard stomach, and in a Sears catalog, you'd find the Heidelberg Alternating Current Electric Belt, designed to jiggle you to perfection.

Then there's the G-H-R Electric Thermitis, a prostate warmer, which claimed to be able to turn any man into a sexual Schwarzenegger.

Some devices did it all, like the Nemectron, which used magnets and radio waves to rejuvenate glands, cure acne and "normalize" undersized or oversized breasts.

In 1984, retired steel salesman Robert McCoy began showing his little treasures in his office and two years ago, he donated it all to the Science Museum of Minnesota.

Among his favorites: the Spectro-Crome, a device that was said to cure a variety of diseases by shining a 1,000-watt bulb at the patient through different color lenses. According to the directions, red light is good for the heart, while a yellow light, naturally, builds strong bones.

Of course, for the Spectro-Crome to work, the patient had to "sit naked and in the dark in front of the appropriate color of light, facing north, during certain moon phases."

Before McCoy came along, if anyone ever thought a Spectro-Crome would be on display in a museum, he'd probably be accused of having his Electric Thermitis strapped on too tight.

Buck Wolf is entertainment producerat ABCNEWS.com. The Wolf Files ispublished Tuesdays. If you want to receive weekly notice whena new column is published, join the e-maillist.