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Museums Challenged to Showcase ‘Creepiest Objects’ Deliver Stuff of Nightmares

We’re really, really sorry

Submissions included a plague mask, a Feejee "mermaid" and a peapod pincushion. (Courtesy of respective museums via Twitter)
smithsonianmag.com

With its ghastly grin and soul-penetrating stare, a taxidermied Feejee “mermaid” has long haunted employees managing the collections at the National Museums of Scotland. But this nightmarish knickknack has now become a powerful weapon in the latest #CuratorBattle taking place on Twitter: a call for the creepiest objects in the collections of museums around the world.

Kicked off last Friday by the Yorkshire Museum—which has been hosting a series of similar cultural jousts each week—the competition began with a relatively tame submission from the York-based institution itself: a hair bun, still held together by a pair of pins, found in the grave of a third- or fourth-century Roman woman.

“CAN YOU BEAT IT?” a Yorkshire employee tweeted in all caps.

Institutions readily rose to the challenge, flooding the Twitter thread with sinister submissions: a worn, beaked, 17th- or 18th-century plague mask from the Deutches Historisches Museum in Berlin; a bloated “zombie blowfish” from the Bexhill Museum in East Sussex; an iron mask—designed for public humiliation and sporting an eerie, lopsided grin—from the Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds.

All of the artifacts submitted were, at the very least, hair-raising—and most seemed to invite more questions than they answered. A curator from the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford sent in a nail-studded sheep’s heart intended to be worn as a necklace that could “break evil spells.” Also batting for Team Creepy Jewelry, the nearby Ashmolean Museum submitted its own pendant, carved to display a dead man’s drooping face on one side and a rotting skull wriggling with worms on the other.

“In a lot of ways, we wish we could un-see this entire thread,” the Ashmolean tweeted.

The curators behind the Clarke Charm Collection then upped the ante with another gruesome form of ornamentation: bits of human bones and teeth. In two submissions, the team showcased a Homo sapiens finger bone cherished by a gambler who hoped it would bring good luck, as well as a dead man’s dentition, hung around a baby’s neck “to prevent convulsions brought on by teething.”

Other entries were more bizarre than anything else. One from the York Castle Museum featured a diorama of handmade models—crafted from crab claws and legs—playing cards and mining gold.

“Typical Victorians,” the institution tweeted. “[T]hey loved weird/creepy stuff.”

A submission posted by Clara Molina Sanchez, head of applied conservation at Historic Environment Scotland, showed a whale’s eardrum, meticulously painted to resemble a distorted human face.

Perhaps most unsettling of all were the submissions featuring children’s toys, dolls and other humanoid figures in bafflingly skin-crawling settings. On this side of the Atlantic, a curator from Canada’s Prince Edward Island Museum sent in a “cursed” children’s toy called “Wheelie” that was discovered inside the walls of a 155-year-old mansion.

“[I]t MOVES ON ITS OWN,” the institution tweeted. “Staff put it in one place and find it in another spot later on…”

Other contenders in this unsurprisingly rich category were the fragments of several broken dolls, complete with disembodied glassy eyes, from the Egham Museum in England; the Toy Museum of Penhurst Place’s piercingly red-eyed “drinking bear” that will sip from a cup for a donation of two pence; and a pincushion made in the shape of a peapod and stuck with tiny children’s heads. Fittingly, the last of these entries was a fan favorite, though all are bone-chilling in their own way.

Among the best (worst?) submissions is the National Museums of Scotland’s original mermaid. In a series of tweets, the institution writes that these taxidermied terrors are common in the world’s museums as relics of sideshows. Rather than representing any natural-born creature, the objects were purposefully manufactured oddities, often created by sewing the back half of a fish onto the torso of a juvenile monkey (or a sculpture crafted to resemble one).

Most of the Yorkshire Museum’s other curator battles have been much less macabre. As Taylor Dafoe reports for artnet News, past iterations have included calls for institutions’ dullest, prettiest and deadliest items, as well as a delightful Easter-themed competition for collections’ “best eggs.”

Begun in the wake of the Yorkshire Museum’s closure, the weekly competitions have been a small boon for the institution, which has engaged cultural partners far and wide with its light-hearted social media spars.

“The curator battle has been gradually building as more and more museums and the general public look at our Twitter feed every Friday to see what theme we’re going to pitch,” Millicent Carroll at York Museums Trust tells the Guardian’s Helen Pidd. But Carroll admits that “the creepiest object has taken it to another level.”

“It is great for us and other museums to be able to still share our collections with the public when our doors are closed,” she says. “We just hope we haven’t given anyone any nightmares!”

For many of us, that chilling ghost ship likely set sail a long time ago.

About Katherine J. Wu
Katherine J. Wu

Katherine J. Wu is a Boston-based science journalist and Story Collider senior producer whose work has appeared in National Geographic, Undark magazine, Popular Science and more. She holds a Ph.D. in Microbiology and Immunobiology from Harvard University, and was Smithsonian magazine's 2018 AAAS Mass Media Fellow.

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