The dime or dime store museum is by all accounts an endangered species. The first dime museum, “The American Museum,” was opened in 1841 by none other than P. T. Barnum himself. It represented a departure from high-class art and science museums, catering to a poorer crowd and offering items of a much more dubious nature.
Part of the appeal of the dime store museum lay in arguing about what was real and what was a “humbug,” as P. T. Barnum called a hoax or fake display. Feejee mermaids (a type of fake or “gaff” taxidermy made from a monkey and a fish, sewn together to form an incredibly ugly “mermaid”) mixed with real exotic animals, and scientific instruments sat next to a loom run by a dog. Unfortunately, Barnum’s American Museum burned to the ground in 1865.
Though many dime museums had disappeared by the 1920s, dime museums such as New York City’s Hubert’s Museum would remain open until the late 1960s. One of the best recreation dime museums, Baltimore’s American Dime Museum, opened in 1999 only to shutter its doors in 2007. So though it may not look like much at first, “Austin’s Museum of the Weird” is in fact a rare beast.
Created by artist-entrepreneur Steve Busti, the museum lives in the back of his store, the “Lucky Lizard,” and features many of the same types of curios you might have encountered in a turn-of-the-century dime museum, including a feejee mermaid. Among the other items shown are a a cyclops pig, a hand of glory (supposedly the dried and pickled hand of a man who has been hanged), live tarantulas, a two-headed chicken, shrunken heads, and mummies. Among the more recent additions are items from 1960s and 70s camp horror films, such as full-sized figures of Frankenstein and other classic monsters.
Though more expensive than a dime, the Museum of the Weird happily continues the tradition of the dime store museum.
Obscura Day location: April 9, 2011.