By JEANNIE WILEY WOLF
A new exhibit at the Hancock Historical Museum features a slightly creepy collection of oddities: a giant papier-mâché head, for instance, preserved bugs and a pair of bear paw gloves.
“The only thing I didn’t include were body parts in jars because I didn’t have those,” said curator and archivist Joy Bennett of the Cabinet of Curiosities display, located in the rotating exhibit gallery on the second floor of the Hull House.
“And I didn’t put in anything that was fake,” she added. “I didn’t make a fake mermaid or a unicorn horn or anything like that. I tried to be as factual as possible.”
Bennett explained that a man named Ferrante Imperiato collected examples of natural history and opened the first Cabinet of Curiosities to the public back in 1599, in Italy. The trend grew from there, as nobles, aristocrats, businessmen and the scientifically inclined gathered items of natural history and other cultures into a cabinet or a dedicated room.
These became the first artifacts in the collections of some of the best known museums today, she said.
“Science wasn’t really a thing. People were interested in it, but it wasn’t considered an actual scholarly discipline until after the Victorian era had begun,” said Bennett. “Plenty of people would study bugs and butterflies and birds and things like that, and they found it fascinating. They’re the ones who started writing all the books, and then it slowly became a discipline.”
Bennett got the idea to put together a local Cabinet of Curiosities exhibit after reading a similarly titled novel and reflecting that “we (the museum) had some weird things.”
Bennett, who recently returned from a trip to England, said the British Museum got its start this way.
“They actually had an exhibit set up that looks kind of like a gentleman’s study where he had his cabinet of curiosities,” she said. “They would have stuffed birds and all kinds of random things in these cabinets, and then they’d invite friends and people over.”
When the idea came to the United States, it became more of a money-making scheme.
“That’s when they started faking mermaids to get people to come in. It was, like, 5 cents to come in, so it was something the common people could do and that intrigued them,” she said.
A cabinet originally referred to a room more than an actual piece of furniture. Later on, that’s how the curio cabinet got its name, Bennett said.
“So if you had a room, that was for the wealthier people. More middle-class people, they started having actual cabinets where they would display their curiosities. And now everyone pretty much has them and they put dishes in them,” she said.
People are still fascinated by curiosities, Bennett said, adding that her favorite item on display is the pair of black fur bear gloves.
“Somebody actually had gloves that were made out of bear paws,” she said. “They have fingers. The claws aren’t in them. They’re not sharp on the ends, but they look like bear paws.”
There are also cabinets filled with rocks, fossils and pieces of glass, animal teeth and skulls, a basket made from an armadillo’s leathery armor shell and a vintage purse with an alligator’s head for the clasp. A chair holds two fox fur stoles with the heads, feet and claws still attached.
An early Findlay business, the American Mask Manufacturing Co., is remembered in the form of an oversized man’s head. The business was started during the Gas and Oil Boom and became one of the top mask manufacturers in the United States, selling masks, false noses, wax ears, wigs and beards for 70 years.
Bennett said even she thinks the cartoonish head is weird: “All of the masks were a little bit creepy. I think it’s just the way they were made.”
There’s also a map of Ohio, on which each county is represented by a different piece of flint — the state gemstone.
A large wreath made from human hair dates back to Victorian times. Bennett said many people are repulsed, yet intrigued, by the item.
“They’re like, ‘how did they make that, where did that idea come from?’” she said. “So all of this just kind of turns into a big mix of bizarre and different and exciting and creepy.”
Bennett said another aspect of the Cabinet of Curiosities would be to include items from different cultures. The museum’s exhibit features a kimono, Samurai sword and helmet.
The case also holds an ornately decorated silver tea set from Japan that was given to local resident Katie Turley for her wedding to William Bell, one of the owners of Bell Pottery Co. during the Gas and Oil Boom. The tea set was sent by Bell’s brother.
Unfortunately, William Bell died prior to the wedding.
“She never married, and so it ended up here,” Bennett said. “We actually have the wrapping that it originally came in, and it had all the stamps and everything on it which is really cool, but it’s also pretty fragile.”
There’s even an unidentified contraption on display, complete with levers and plastic wheels. Bennett found it at the top of one of the stacks and has been unable to find any reference to it in the museum’s archives.
“This has been sitting on my desk with me trying to figure out what it is for over a year,” she said, adding that she is offering a prize to anyone who can identify the item.
Bennett thinks the exhibit will prove popular with the public, especially with Halloween approaching. And she said she’s happy with the way the exhibit turned out, except for one thing: “It would be nice to have a brain in a jar,” she smiled.
The exhibit will remain on display through the end of the year. The museum is located at 422 W. Sandusky St. and is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, and from 1-4 p.m. Sunday.