Friday, January 23, 2009

Museum Guide now available!

The lack of updates here over the past year has been mainly due to the gestation of a printed version of the museum. The resulting 50-page, full color, lavishly illustrated tome, The Zymoglyphic Museum: A Guide to the Collections, is now available to augment your library, to display on your coffee table, or simply be squirreled away for perusal at a later date. You will have the museum with all the sensual pleasures that a book affords, with more in-depth explanations than found on the Web site. The book reviews the history and artifacts of the Zymoglyphic Region, surveys its unique flora and fauna, and probes the nature and meaning of museum's place in the scheme of things. It can be yours for a mere double-sawbuck, or half that for an incorporeal version delivered directly to your virtual desktop.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Mark Twain Reviews a Museum of Curiosities in San Francisco

The San Francisco Chronicle recently printed a facsimile page of its coverage of the Lincoln assassination in 1865. One column to the left, under "Amusements", was this note:

GILBERTS MUSEUM - This ever attractive place for young and old, Gilbert's Museum, will have its doors thrown open as usual to the public to-day. The Chinese Jugglers and Learned Pig are still among the attractions.

For a few months in latter half of 1864, Mark Twain, the master of sardonic Victorian prose, was the only full-time reporter for the San Francisco Daily Morning Call. He filed the following dispatches from Gilbert's Museum:

July 3, 1864

MARKET STREET MUSEUM. - The management of this institution has had a severe though not painful attack of novelty on the brain. A whole batch of curiosities have been added to the cabinets during the week past. The French gentleman, extensively known as the Irish giant, and the lightning calculator, who must be a Yank -- notwithstanding he hails from Lancashire, are still there. The Museum is worth a visit at least once a week.

July 4, 1864

TOM THUMB AND HIS BRIDE. - We all remember what a furor was created when General Tom Thumb was married to Minnie Warren, at Grace Church, New York, and how the press teemed with descriptions of the interesting event. The whole bridal party are now in San Francisco, at Gilbert's Museum; not in the flesh, to be sure, but so near it that a casual glance would be likely to deceive all at a cursory view. We refer to the wonderful cero plastic group of the "Fairy Wedding," at the Museum, which Gilbert, through his keen sighted caterer, Hudson, lately brought on from New York. The group also includes a life-like representation of the great Barnum, the Master of Ceremonies on that interesting occasion. It is well worth a visit, and we are glad to know that the enterprise of the manager of the Museum is appreciated and rewarded. Thousands, including a vast crowd of the fair sex, crowd the Museum daily to see this remarkable exhibition.

September 25, 1864

GILBERT'S MUSEUM. - They have engaged an individual at the Museum who may be said to be minimum in regard to size, and maximum as to muscle. He is called the Lilliputian Hercules, and is probably about the dimensions of that mythological deity, when, as a suckling in his cradle, he strangled a serpent. He is some at lifting heavy weights, and it is proposed to engage him for the purpose of boosting the McClellanites into power. You can see the baneful effects of slavery here, too, in the person of a diminutive North Carolina female contraband, who has about as much brain as a humming-bird, and who could be put into a gallon measure with ease without contracting her crinoline. There are many other things here which make one lift his eyes and wonder at the freaks of Nature when she is in a frolicsome mood. Mr. Hudson has again assumed the management of the Museum, and he will speedily add other novelties to the collection.

The source is Twain scholar Barbara Schmidt's collection of newpsaper articles that can be attributed to Twain. He did not have a byline, but his style was so distinctive that these quotes are presumed to be his. Perusing the rest of Twain's articles makes for wonderful view of our fair city in its wild adolescence.

Gilbert's Museum would appear to have been one of the many "dime museums" that were popular in 19th century America. Most were on the East Coast, with P.T Barnum's American Museum in New York the flagship of the genre. They drew in the paying public with oddities, freakish amusements, and visual spectacles, then claimed the moral high ground with sanctimonious instruction. The history of the phenomenon is chronicled in the Weird & Wonderful: The Dime Museum in America.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

The Albany Bulb: A Zymoglyphic Landscape in the East Bay

The Albany Bulb is a chunk of landfill west of the town of Albany, which itself is a bayside town just north of Berkeley. The Bulb is connected to the mainland by a narrow neck of land and was used as a garbage dump for many years. The landscape features slabs of concrete at odd angles, often painted wild colors, rusty rebar snakes everywhere, rampant vegetation, and trees festooned with all manner of strange objects. There is a community of people creating assemblage art from the treasure trove of decayed and weathered materials available in the weeds and trees. On the north shore, driftwood giants gaze across the bay and strange metal plants sprout from the grass. Winter storms knock down the art and provide material for new ones. The art currently varies from modest trailside assemblages to monumental driftwood-and-rusty-metal sculptures. Many of them are the creation of Osha Neumann. There is also an outdoor gallery of paintings that are slowly decaying into the landscape.

The area was formerly colonized by indigent campers, setting up homes under trees or in shacks. One of them built a small castle from local materials. As all the residents have now been rousted by the local authorities, the castle itself is decaying into the landscape. Documentation about the Bulb can be found here with a video here.

A previous generation of driftwood assemblagists created a sculpture garden in the mudflats west of nearby Emeryville. The constructions began in the mid-sixties and flourished in the following two decades; they were a treat to see while driving along I80 to the Bay Bridge. Some of them are the subject of a photo essay by Douglas Keister in his 1985 book Driftwood Whimsy. The mudflats are now the pristine Emeryville Crescent State Marine Reserve.