In Search of Stories

The Dime Museum in Baltimore closed awhile back. I hated to say good-bye to this unique bit of American history. Set in an old townhouse in Baltimore, the Dime Museum sought to replicate the dime museums that flourished in the 19th and early 20th century. These were usually in someone’s home and included odd collections of curiosities for public viewing at a dime per person.

The museum’s atmosphere was musty, dusty, and rundown. A nine-foot-tall fake Egyptian mummy lay in its sarcophagus at the door. The museum docent told us that there was a booming business in fake mummies during the heyday of these museums because all the dime museums wanted one. The other curiosities were

equally bizarre, such as Abraham Lincoln’s last turd (faked) and circus memorabilia. As my niece said after a visit, “It was interesting and somewhat disturbing.”

Three other museums in Baltimore offer fascinating insights into art and culture. The Visionary Art Museum, with its collection of finely detailed sculptures and paintings by untrained or self-taught artists with a vision, for example. Geppi’s Museum of Pop Culture exhibits the comic books and other pop culture items we all grew up with. I enjoyed watching a brief segment of the “Howdy Doody Show.” In the same building is the Sports Museum of American sports figures. Also don’t forget the Electronics Museum and the Cryptology Museum, both near the Baltimore International Airport.

I make a point of stopping at small museums as I travel. My interest probably stems from visiting the Castillo de San Marcos in St. Augustine, Florida, when I was a child. Our guide held us spellbound with gory stories of its past which appealed to my bloodthirsty mind and were probably totally fabricated. Nowadays, my museum visits stem from a need to research a bit of history for a novel I’m writing, but they often present mysteries and bits of information that send me scurrying in pursuit of a different story.

Gone are the dime museums and the dark converted storefronts or attics. I’ve found the quality of the museums I’ve visited to be excellent and the exhibits well designed, informative, and prepared by knowledgeable people. If there’s a question about an exhibit’s historical accuracy, it’s noted.

We recently visited the National Watch and Clock Museum in the small town of Columbia, PA, two hours from Philadelphia. This museum is run by the National Watch and Clock Collectors Association, and the exhibits cover the history of time-keeping from the earliest non-mechanical devises to the latest. It includes 12,000 time-keeping devices of all kinds. The excellence of this museum is a surprise considering it’s set in such a small town.

In November, we found the Casement Museum in the walls of Fort Monroe at the mouth of the Chesapeake in Hampton, Virginia. This fort was held by the Union throughout the Civil War and became a station on the Underground Railroad. The story is that three slaves made it to Fort Monroe and asked for sanctuary there. Their owner arrived and insisted that the slaves be returned to him. General Butler, who was in charge, refused, saying that since Virginia had seceded, he was declaring the slaves contraband of war.

Hampton’s town museum also has excellent displays of the history of the town and the area.