In the information age, tall tales, barstool boasts and other outlandish stories are endangered species. With just a quick glance at the powerful computational rectangles in each of our pockets, the veracity of any claim—big or small—can be challenged and quashed in an instant. Were such devices around in the traveling sideshow era of yesteryear, folks like P.T. Barnum would never have stood a chance at building empires founded on spectacle and wonder.
It’s this baked-in skepticism of modern existence that makes a place like Austin’s Museum of the Weird such a charming and necessary place. Located in the back of a souvenir shop in the city’s boozy 6th Street bar strip, the unassuming museum channels the mysterious allure of a carnival freak show. Unlike its predecessors, this sideshow conveys less of an intent to deceive its customers than an encouragement for them to bathe in the feeling that comes from being in the presence of fantastical oddities, irrespective of their “realness.”
What all of these items are, however, is “authentic,” depending on how you choose to interpret that word. The walls of exhibits in the back of the shop contain naturally occurring or man-made weirdness that we’veall seen before. On display are a number of taxidermy specimens of two-headed livestock, human heads shrunken by Amazonian tribes and mummified or skeletal remains of the once living—macabre but already known by most to be found in the real world.
What’s more compelling are the jackalope head and furry trout mounts hanging on the wall like big game trophies. To decry these or any of the other cryptozoological samples on display as fakes is to misunderstand the reason for their inclusion in the museum. This is not a con artist trying to convince you that a fish with fluffy white fur exists in the wild. This is, in actuality, one of the few remaining furry trout antiques, furnished nearly a century back to bamboozle a far less savvy general public. Here is where one’s ability to interpret authenticity and take the museum on its own terms will make the difference between a fun time or the sinking feeling that one’s blown money on a tourist trap.
As Saul Ravencraft, the wonderfully quirky and supremely knowledgeable tour guide for the museum explains, the impulse to cry foul and demand a refund when we’ve been cheekily bamboozled is a relatively modern mentality.
“People back then were better sports about it,” he said during a recent tour of the exhibits. “Today, we’d probably face lawsuits if we tried some of the stuff Barnum pulled.”
Ravencraft then launched into a potentially apocryphal but nonetheless entertaining anecdote about the showman’s American Museum and the signage therein that directed patrons “this way to the egress.” As the story goes, those who were unaware of the word’s meaning would make their way to what they thought was another oddity, only be spit out into an alley and forced to pay another nickel should they wish to re-enter the museum and continue their visit, laughing at themselves for having fallen into Barnum’s trap.
Ravencraft went on to explain that the menagerie on display in the museum is the private collection of Steve Busti, the souvenir shop owner and a man who’s spent a lifetime collecting and curating unusual curiosities from across the globe after a childhood encounter at a traveling fair sparked his interest in the bizarre. As luck would have it, the genesis of Busti’s obsession is on display at the Museum of the Weird as its centerpiece attraction.
After watching an old Unsolved Mysteries clip to set the mood, visitors are lead into a refrigerated back room—the one place in the museum where photography is forbidden—to behold for themselves the subjectmatter of that decades old episode: The Minnesota Iceman. Beneath a pane of glass, frozen solid in a cloudy block of ice, is what appears to be some sort of hairy humanoid creature. Is it a bigfoot, a prosthetic dummy, an unlucky caveman or perhaps even the missing link? One can’t help but wonder. The face and body of this creature are obscured and diffused enough by the ice to render further visual scrutiny nearly impossible. And that’s by design. This far in the tour, if you’re still hoping to debunk—despite having heard the full circle story of the museum owner having come into possession of the attraction that shaped the trajectory of his entire life—you’ve entirely missed the point.
In a cultural moment where the very definition of truth is up for grabs and we’re besieged on all sides by reality-warping actors peddling “fake news” for self-serving reasons, The Museum of the Weird offers a valuable service to Austin and tourists who visit it. This little shop is simply asking you to put your guard down for about an hour and presenting you with a safe space to soak in that feeling of awe and bewilderment that was ever-present in your childhood and in tragically short supply today.