Austin’s Museum of the Weird: Honoring the Dime Museums of the Past

Lisa Fritscher June 20, 2011 No Comments

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Museum of the Weird

The Museum of the Weird honors the dime museum tradition

With the official slogan, “Keep Austin Weird,” Austin, Texas is filled with a strong, independent pride. The center of the live music scene and a popular location for street festivals, the 6th Street Historic District is a pedestrian-friendly strip filled with bars, restaurants and shops of every description. It is also a natural home for the Museum of the Weird. Dad and I visited the museum during the Pecan Street Festival this year.

Dime Museums

To fully appreciate the Museum of the Weird, it is necessary to understand the historical context. Popularized by great showmen such as P.T. Barnum, dime museums were all the rage in the late 1800s. For only ten cents, city dwellers could enjoy the same lowbrow and often shocking displays that those in rural areas experienced with the traveling sideshows. Barnum’s American Museum, on Broadway in New York City, set the stage for the dime museums that followed. Barnum coined the phrase “edutainment,” a blend of education and entertainment that is used today to describe places like Walt Disney World’s Epcot.

Dime Museums

Museum of the Weird pays homage to its predecessors

Dime museums introduced visitors to the exotic, the appalling and the disturbing in a time when information about the wider world was difficult to obtain. Visitors flocked to the museums by the thousands to see two-headed animals, flea circuses, feats of strength, magicians and mummies. Human “freaks,” including Barnum’s General Tom Thumb, were often featured.

With few regulations and intense pressure to create newer and more exciting experiences, dime museums often resorted to trickery and outright fraud. Barnum himself realized that visitors were lingering too long, so he put up signs stating “To the Egress.” Thinking they would find a new and exciting exhibit, visitors eagerly followed the signs–only to find themselves walking out the exit doors. To see the rest of the museum, they would have to stand in line and pay a new admission fee.

Dime museums fell by the wayside in the early 20th century. Increasingly sophisticated audiences, concerns about the human rights of “freaks,” tougher regulations, and improved access to worldwide news worked together to end the era of the dime museum. By the mid-20th century, the dime museum seemed firmly relegated to the history books.

Brian Brushwood

Austinite Brian Brushwood helped usher in the modern freak show

In the late 20th century, public tastes changed yet again. Self-proclaimed “freaks” began using body modification, fire eating and extreme stunts to create a sideshow renaissance. Bizarre magicians such as Brian Brushwood (an Austin native), Criss Angel and Matt the Knife, as well as heavily physically modified performers such as Lizardman, have become the public face of the new sideshows.

The increased attention to modern freaks has created a resurgence of interest in the old freak shows, including the dime museums. A handful of new dime museums have opened around the country. Today’s museums present traditional displays as well as historical information on the dime museums of old. If you are interested in learning more about the dime museum tradition, check out the City University of New York’s virtual recreation of Barnum’s American Museum.

Museum of the Weird

Museum of the Lucky Lizard

The Museum is inside the Lucky Lizard gift shop

Like the best roadside attractions, the Museum of the Weird is hidden at the back of a T-shirt shop. Beside T-shirts of every description, Lucky Lizards is packed with posters and a wide range of unusual souvenirs. As of 2011, museum admission is $5 for adults and $2 for children under age 8. If you buy a T-shirt, you get free admission. If you buy a Lucky Lizards or Museum of the Weird T-shirt, you get two free admissions. Tickets are sold at the gift shop register.

Admission tickets, which are yours to keep, resemble old carnival tickets with bright print and slightly antiquated wording. Show your ticket at the old-fashioned barker’s booth at the rear of the store, and then slip through the turnstile and back in time.

Inside the Museum

Fire Eater

Fire eating is an old sideshow tradition

The museum is dimly lit, with narrow passages, and is stuffed to overflowing with all sorts of bizarre exhibits. Each display is well labeled with informational signs that provide some background. Look for mummies, taxidermied animals with various physical mutations, ghostly photography, legendary monsters and Bigfoot’s footprints. One wall is dedicated to the haunted history of Austin.

In the dime museum tradition, the collection is a mix of authentic artifacts and outright fabrications. Though museum staff is happy to point out exactly which items are which, Dad and I had a ton of fun trying to figure it out for ourselves. Look for seams, stitches, body parts that are not quite aligned, and other small details that are out of whack on the fakeries.

For us, the most unexpected and interesting part was the sideshow performer. She met us in the back room of the museum and invited us out onto the porch for a demonstration. The private show consisted of “the Human Blockhead,” a stunt in which the performer inserts a nail up her nose, and a variety of fire eating stunts. Tips are appreciated but not required.

We have seen these stunts at various times over the years, but always as part of a large and elaborate theater show. What a treat to get a private performance, up close, with the opportunity to ask questions and learn more about how the stunts are done!

Tips for Parents

Dime Museum Creepy Displays

Some displays are fairly creepy

Although most kids seemed to enjoy themselves, we did see an unaccompanied brother and sister. The girl was probably around 12, and the boy maybe 7 or 8. They came through the turnstiles just after we did, and the girl froze in place. She kept saying she was scared and didn’t want to go through. After a few minutes, the kids steeled themselves and headed forward past us, into the museum. I don’t know what happened to them, but I suggest that parents go through with their kids rather than sending them in alone.

Be prepared for a variety of questions. As they have for over 100 years, dime museums continue to capture the imaginations of children and adults alike. Depending on your kids’ ages and interests, the museum can spark interesting discussions on topics ranging from the plausibility of ghost sightings to the ways in which people can be manipulated.

The museum is relatively small and is easy to see in an hour or so. It is also fairly quiet and uncrowded, even during busy street festivals, making it an excellent place to relax and decompress. So on your next trip to Austin, why not stop by to see the cream of the crop in 19th century entertainment?

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Lisa is a full-time travel writer. She lives in an RV with her disabled father and writes about their experiences. Although she has no children of her own, Lisa loves being an Aunt to her own relatives and the children of all her friends. You can follow her adventures on her blog, Travel Confessions.

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