Museums that praise and preserve the rare and the odd

Email|Print| Text size + By Kathleen Burge
Globe Staff / November 19, 2006

BURLINGTON, Vt. -- Paul DeCausemacker is running through the holdings of the Williams Hall Museum of Kitsch Art when he utters words that will never pass the lips of curators who spend their days among Egyptian relics and Italian masters.

"We have our animated fruit section," he said. "Bananas with faces and apples with faces and such."

DeCausemacker is a studio supervisor in the University of Vermont's art department, home to the museum, and the closest thing the hallway collection has to a curator. The museum also displays alternating depictions of the Last Supper and groupings of Pez dispensers arranged roughly in the same formation as Jesus and his apostles. There are velvet Elvises and pink flamingo lawn ornaments and a plastic square-dancing cowgirl and cowboy.

"We have a beautiful crucified Christ whose eyes open and close," said Meg McDevitt , a lecturer in the department and a sculptor. "He's just wonderful."

The museum's holdings, however, have one serious void: No pictures of dogs playing poker. "Would you like to make a contribution?" DeCausemacker said.

The museum opened 11 years ago, the brainchild of DeCausemacker and a now-retired art professor with a taste for tacky. The gallery, known as WHAMKA, is one of the odd collections of stuff -- thermometers, spider webs, old snowmobiles -- deposited in pockets around New England and open to the public.

These are not museums that host black-tie fund - raisers to bulk up their endowments. Most will never appear in earnest guidebooks or glossy travel magazines. Their hours of operation may depend upon the whims of the owners. And they often began with someone like DeCausemacker, who never met a plastic cowboy he didn't like.

Porter ThermometerMuseum
Richard Porter loves thermometers. The former junior high science teacher's passion was ignited as he fixed the instruments broken by students. He began collecting them, starting with the piece that had hung for years outside his uncle's New Hampshire gas station. Before his daughter died from a brain tumor in 1990, she made a plea: "She said, 'Dad, do something with your collection,' " Porter recalled.

His answer was to open the Porter Thermometer Museum in the basement of his Onset house. Now the world's largest -- and only -- thermometer museum welcomes visitors every day Porter is home. Porter, meanwhile, has assumed the identity of Thermometer Man, and his collection is listed in Guinness World Records as the world's largest.

His finds include a pair of earrings with working thermometers, a pill-sized thermometer similar to one swallowed by John Glenn during his last space flight , and the instrument upon which Archduke Franz Ferdinand , the heir to the Austro -Hungarian throne whose assassination touched off World War I, learned to read temperature. The royal thermometer was handed down through the family of the monk who was Franz Ferdinand's tutor.

The New England Carousel Museum
To the amateur eye, the prancing horses on carousels may all look the same, but this Bristol, Conn., museum details how artists who designed the painted ponies left their trademarks. Some horses seem ready to leap off the ride; some look content to prance forever in circles. Some look ready to chomp with their big teeth; others show off their glossy manes. Many of the horses were designed by German immigrants who felt freer to develop their own styles after they arrived in America.

The museum, one of the largest collections of antique carousel pieces in the country, plumbs the history of the ride whose popularity peaked here in the late 1800s and early 1900s, when thousands were built. As many children know, there are jumpers -- the horses that go up and down -- and standers . Artists in the museum's restoration department refurbish antique carousel pieces.

The museum, which opened in 1990, also manages the Bushnell Park Carousel in Hartford, which offers rides from early May to mid-October. The 1914 carousel, which has 48 horses, two chariots, and a Wurlitzer band organ, twirled in parks in Ohio and New York before it landed in Connecticut.

Main Street Museum
Stroll through an old firehouse in White River Junction, Vt., and your gaze might fall on such artifacts as Elvis Presley's gallstones, two dehydrated cats, dirt from the 1927 flood, and a bottle that once held salve to treat the wounds of Phineas Gage , the Vermont railroad worker who famously survived an accident that drove a metal spike through his brain.

The quirky museum is the brainchild of David Fairbanks Ford , who grew up playing with a wolfskin from his great-uncle's trip around the world. Many of the treasures, including the Phineas Gage relic, came from the large attics of his grandmother and great-aunt. Ford says he is trying to create a museum where ordinary objects tell important stories.

"It's sort of looking backwards to the most ancient history of museums, the cabinet of curiosities, but also looking forward to what makes museums important," he said.

New Hampshire Snowmobile Museum
The modern snowmobile is a pleasure machine, hurtling riders along winter-white paths at breathtaking speeds. But the earliest snowmobiles were practical vehicles that hauled logs from the icy woods and transported doctors and mailmen over snowy roads.

Some 80 snowmobiles are on display at the New Hampshire Snowmobile Museum in Allenstown, but one of the most intriguing is the White Model T snowmobile, invented in the 1920s by an Ossipee Ford dealer named Virgil White . White's attachment, which he sold as a kit, produced a car that looked as if it glided on thick wooden skis.

Later, the 1953 Eliason Motor Toboggan , which looks like a sled with a motor, took hunters into the woods and allowed them to check their trap lines. Soon people began riding snowmobiles just for the fun of it, says George Burdick , president of the museum's association. "They didn't really come into their being as a recreational vehicle until the 1960s," he said.

Burdick, who has been a snowmobiler for more than three decades, gives tours of the museum by appointment in the fall and winter, until its regular Saturday hours resume in January. The museum opened in 1985, in buildings erected by the Civilian Conservation Corps during World War II. The buildings also house the New Hampshire Camping Museum , open only in warmer months.

The Public Health Museum in Massachusetts
It is impossible to walk through the rooms of the state's first mental hospital and not feel the ghosts . One wall is stacked high with leather books listing the thousands of patients who descended upon Tewksbury Hospital when it opened as an almshouse for immigrants in 1852. Later, the hospital became the state's first institution to accept the "pauper insane."

The hospital's most famous resident was Anne Sullivan , who later moved to Alabama to tutor Helen Keller . Sullivan was 10 when she arrived from Agawam with her younger brother, James . Their mother had died and their father was destitute. In an elaborate handwritten scrawl, Sullivan's diagnosis was listed as "weak eyes." James arrived with a hip problem and later died at the hospital.

The eight-room museum opened in 1994 in the hospital's former administration building and gives a tour of public health over the past century and a half, from a pedal-powered dentist's drill to an iron lung (which debuted at Children's Hospital in 1928). A public health message from the 1920s warns: "Very Sad Stories Are Likely to Harden the Matter-of-Fact Child and Hurt the Sensitive Child."

Spider Web Farm
Will and Terry Knight's assemblage of spider webs is a money-making enterprise, not technically a museum, but their Williamstown , Vt., collection has spanned 15,000 authentic, individually spun webs over the past three decades. Terry Knight stumbled upon the idea of gluing the airy strings of a spider web to a board as she was learning to paint. She and her husband now sell their entomological masterpieces for $20 and up in their farm's store.

The Knights collect the webs in their barn, hanging special racks, similar to window frames, to encourage the spiders to spin. Every morning, the Knights gently harvest the webs -- without the spiders -- by slipping a glue-covered board behind the delicate strands.

"Some days there are no webs," Will Knight said. "Some days there's 20, 30 of them."

Once the webs are stuck to the board, the Knights lacquer them in place. One wall of the store is covered with their webs, the largest more than two feet tall.

To try to boost production, the Knights once started storing their garbage in the barn, figuring more flies would mean more spiders. But that enterprise ended when it became clear that the only result was a smelly barn.

Contact Kathleen Burge at

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