Buddy, can you spare the Dime Museum?

Co-founder says yes, though he and partner are splitting

November 06, 2003|By Michael Ollove | Michael Ollove,SUN STAFF

Not so fast.

Baltimore's American Dime Museum - that repository of the bizarre and the curious - may not disappear after all.

Although one of the co-founders, James Taylor, announced that he is pulling out and taking his portion of the collection with him, his partner, Dick Horne, insisted yesterday that he would soldier on by himself.

As reported in yesterday's Sun, the buildings that house the 4-year-old museum on Maryland Avenue are being auctioned off Nov. 20. Horne, who could not be reached for the earlier story, says he hopes to put in a bid, and if that is unsuccessful, to continue the museum's tenancy under a new owner. He may even approach a third party - a foundation, for example - to buy the buildings and lease them back to him.

So confident is Horne that he already has plans to mount a retrospective in January on the finger painting of Betsy the Chimp, a once-favored attraction at the Baltimore Zoo.

Taylor, an authority on the history of dime museums, midways and carnival sideshows, said that the museum had essentially closed Oct. 31, with his departure. "It's a cessation," Taylor said yesterday. "It may change into another thing, but it's not going to change into anything like the American Dime Museum." Yesterday, Horne said he had never actually closed the museum's doors and has no intentions of doing so, even as he reconfigures the place.

Horne said that he and Taylor, publisher of the periodical Shocked and Amazed, had philosophical disagreements about the running of the museum. Their debate, he said, mainly concerned money.

In its early years, the museum made enough money from admission fees to pay its bills and even to add a bit to the collections. Even then, though, there wasn't enough money coming in to pay salaries.

But in the last year, there was a drop-off in revenue and higher utility bills. Both men agreed that the museum could not last, not without major changes.

Horne determined the museum needed to generate more money, not only to stay in business, but also to produce an income for him. The issue was particularly important to Horne. Taylor, a performance auditor with the state of Maryland, works in the museum only one afternoon a week. For Horne, though, the museum has been a full-time job for four years, but one that paid him nothing.

"I have to make money and to do that I have to open a retail shop in the museum," said Horne, who is a professional artist.

"I want the museum to change," he continued. "I think it's gotten stale. I said I want to do retail stuff here. I want to sell museum-related merchandise. I want to have different kinds of exhibits. James wanted out. He did not want to be associated with the museum if it became more commercial, if it had a store in it."

Taylor said yesterday that commercialization raised an insurmountable problem of integrity to him. Because the exhibits themselves are fakery, he said, there would not be enough of a distinction between what was on the shelves in the gift shop and what was behind glass in the museum displays. Horne's plan, he said, was not without merit, but he didn't want to be part of it. "I couldn't be connected with that," he said.

So, Taylor decided to exit - with all his artifacts, memorabilia, props and periodicals.

Losing Taylor's collections, Horne said, is a blow, but not a fatal one. He said Taylor's portion of the collections amounts to about a third of the overall exhibits, but Horne said he will make up that material with "things that I already have and things that I still want exhibited."

Yes, the Samoan Sea Worm will go, and the Devil Man and the Unicorn, but remaining will be the Giant Bat, the Peruvian Amazon Giantess and many other favorites, Horne said.

What the new entity will be called is somewhat up in the air. Taylor insists that Horne must drop the name "The American Dime Museum" because it connotes what the two of them created, not whatever the place becomes.

Horne is considering obliging, although he notes there is no copyright on the name. "If he's terribly upset about that," Horne said, "I could make it the `Baltimore Dime Museum.'"

Whatever the case, he insisted that the city will continue to have a dime museum.

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