'Mermaids, Mummies & Mastodons' Peale offers oddities, artifacts & profundities in new exhibition

December 01, 1990|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,Evening Sun Staff

The "Feejee Mermaid," P.T. Barnum's infamous hoax, has dropped in from Harvard for a long sabbatical. An ancient sarcophagus, once home to the Western Hemisphere's first resident mummy, has returned in a large wooden shipping crate marked "fragile," 166 years after its last appearance in Baltimore.

The fiberglass, 18-foot-long mastodon skeleton arrived along with its own assembly team last summer from the Illinois State Museum.

In word and in eccentric breadth, "Mermaids, Mummies Mastodons: The Evolution of the American Museum," is finally complete. The exhibition, which opens today at the Peale Museum, "is about learning and wonder," says curator Richard W. Flint.

The show, designed to be both cerebral and fun, has a broad audience in mind, Flint says. "Whether it is a child growing up in the 20th century and learning for the first time, or for a learned man in the Renaissance tradition; it should appeal to and intrigue both."

In four galleries brimming with nearly 300 artifacts and oddities, "Mermaids" traces the history of museums from the "birth of learning" in the late 1400s until the present day.

In doing so, the show also examines the intricately intertwined paths of entertainment and education throughout American cultural history, as represented by the flamboyant showman P.T. Barnum and the Peales, an American family of artistic, scientific and educational brilliance.

By re-creating a 19th century museum, where mummiesminerals, butterflies and stuffed birds commonly kept company with wax figures and mermaid-esque hoaxes, Flint and exhibit designer Elizabeth Miles employ the tantalizing techniques of both Peale and Barnum, but with a historical perspective. "I would like to think I have the flamboyance of a Barnum, but the integrity of a Charles Willson Peale," says Flint, who studied museum administration at the Cooperstown graduate programs in New York, and came to the Peale from the Smithsonian Institution.

The three Ms of the exhibit's title -- as well as the wax figure of the 739-pound Daniel Lambert, the clothing worn by Tom Thumb in an audience with Queen Victoria, a peace pipe found by explorers Lewis and Clark, a Seminole tortoise shell leg rattle, a stuffed whooping crane, portraits of distinguished men, the swordfish dagger that killed 18th century explorer Captain Cook, and other eclectic objects -- trace their ancestry as relics worthy of display to the first museum collections, actually housed in private homes centuries ago.

When the Renaissance brought intellectual freedom from the narrow boundaries of religious teaching, the natural world assumed an aura of wonder. Wealthy folks commonly collected fossils, minerals, clocks, crocodiles and the like in "cabinets of curiosities," where they could at once marvel at and attempt to codify a universe that was being discovered at a bewildering pace.

In the tradition of Renaissance collectors, the painter Charles Willson Peale founded the Phila-delphia Museum in 1786. It was a place where he could display his extensive collection of scientific specimens as well as his own portraits of great men. But Peale, unlike his European counterparts who ran their

museums with intimidating formality, allowed "anybody with 25 cents to get into his museum," Flint says.

Peale's son, Rembrandt, also a respected painter, opened the Baltimore Museum and Gallery of the Fine Arts in 1814, where one of the two mastodon skeletons discovered by his father in 1801 astounded visitors. Rembrandt's brother Rubens started a New York museum in 1825.

Over the years, slim profits forced the Peales and other museum operators to entice visitors by "[submerging] the scientist in the showman, and the result was a curious mix of education and entertainment," Flint says in a "Museum News" article.

Gradually, the exhibits and events staged at the Peale museums more and more resembled Barnum's practice of blending scientific objects with "a theater of marvels." The "Mermaids" exhibit features a time-line culled from 11,000 newspapers which clearly shows how attendance at the Baltimore Peale museum soared with the display of curiosities, including live animals and the 1825 visit of one Miss Honeywell, an armless silhouette cutter.

In their presentation of vaudeville, drama and other amusements, museums vied with other spectacles such as circuses and theater events, as well as each other, for visitors. Such tactics did not always succeed, as Ruben Peale lamented in 1922, "Since the opening of the circus, I have been completely deserted."

Preparing for "Mermaids," Flint made contact with about 100 institutions where he considered approximately 2,000 artifacts. Flint developed files on about 700 on those objects, and %J borrowed half of them for the exhibition. Less than 10 objects come from the Baltimore Peale Museum itself. All objects on display "could have been found in the Peale or in a competing collection," Flint says.

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