Written by Jonathan Wojcik
The Museum of Unnatural History!
Despite skipping out on Otakon for the first time in a decade, this year's visit to my hometown of Bel Air, Maryland has proven to be the best yet. We've caught a live Rifftrax heckling of Starship Troopers, unintentionally angered a cuttlefish at the National Zoo, rediscovered the joys of having a Wawa on every street and spent Saturday the 24th at the Maryland Renaissance Festival. It's the country's second largest event of its kind, a whole permanent fantasy village that opens its doors every fall. Expensive knick-knacks, deliciously unhealthy foods and bulging cleavage abound, but there's one particular attraction that I shockingly enjoy more than all of those things combined:
There are actually two unrelated fake-monster-museums operating out of the same festival, but we were unable to find the other one this year, which focuses more on freaky taxidermy and their real, living two-headed turtle. Fortunately, The Museum of Unnatural History, or MUH as nobody I know of calls it, is the more magical of the two, packing an enormous amount of creativity and artistic talent into a space smaller than your average public restroom, and a tour is only one dollar.
The Museum's interior is a single narrow, winding hallway, lined with beautifully fabricated dragon skulls, demon heads, tentacled horrors and other inventive "specimens" whose minimal, atmospheric illumination is the only light source provided. Even when bathed in a camera's flash, the craftsmanship is gorgeously detailed and often plenty convincing enough, but the tasteful darkness does a lot to further the illusion that maybe, just maybe they're not all just pretend.
I realize the majority of you may never have an opportunity to visit the MD Ren-fest MUH, but I'd hate to spoil too much of something so charming to visit in person, so while there are at least a couple dozen items on display, I'll be reviewing only around five in any detail.
The lovely Ceratium (which more or less just means "head thing") is one of just three moving creatures in the museum, all three of which are tentacled blobs in water-filled tanks that appear to be controlled by magnets from underneath. Here's a video of Ceratium I took the last time I visited in 2011. I idolize the sheer simple ingenuity of the design; just squiggles upon squiggles. It's honestly quite hard to pick which of the three tentacle-puppets I like the most, but Ceratium also happens to be the very first thing greeting you when you step inside.
It's incredibly difficult to get an even vaguely presentable photograph of the Nightmare, which it logically should be. The little guy is amazingly only a few inches across, and he's pinned to the back wall of an especially long, deep and dark enclosure. It kind of creates the illusion that the Nightmare is a whole lot bigger, imprisoned at a safe distance from visitors. It's hard to choose a single favorite aspect of anything with three eyes, a giant mouth and a body made of moss, but I think if I were to write an article like "The Top Ten Things About the Nightmare from the Museum of Unnatural History at the Maryland Renaissance Festival," the #1 spot just might go to that fifth set of claws on his little naked rat-tail.
Every specimen at the MUH includes at least a name card, while many throw in a detailed description or a cute little gag; Grendel's Arm is said to have been "brutally" ripped off by the "foul and murderous" Beowulf. An empty, shattered jar assures us we're better off not knowing what got loose. In this case, we have a blurb about how "contrary to popular belief, fairies are not cute and fluffy." It's a strange, confusing choice of words for something I would positively smother with little hugs and kisses.
There are a lot of jars crammed with vague, nondescript things throughout the MUH. You've seen some already, housing indistinct jellyfish-like bodies. Another looks a lot like the remains of a vampire squid, and others contain finely detailed little demons, but there's something about the "Bugaboo" I find fun in a unique and special way. Maybe it's because it's so dimly lit, you can't even see its freaky red eyes and knobbly claws without bringing your own light source. Otherwise, it just seems like a jar full of fuzz. It doesn't take much to impress me sometimes.
One of the MUH's many larger, stunningly sculpted goblins, imps and demons, I wish more than anything that this was the sort of thing our culture really thought of whenever it thought "elf." Every time another book, film or game recycles Tolkien's pointy-eared Aryan fetish fantasies I'm pretty sure another real elf somewhere in the land of the fey just bursts into flames and dies with a piercing shriek of hatred and regret...but not this elf. This is an elf who would hunt down the derivative writer smearing her good name (why can't it be a lady? You don't know) and drag them into the bowels of the abyss for a thousand years of weird, kinky tortures only elves would come up with, because proper elves are probably freaking crazy.
And there you have it; just a handful of the artificial (or are they!?) oddities you can meet at the Museum of Unnatural History - every last one of which was allegedly created by the same incredible artist, Ken Carns. I'd have loved to know far more, but a googling yields only two scant snippets of further information:
One, that he passed away in 2003, an unforgivable loss to our culture.
And two, that he actually began as a vendor, selling his one-of-a-kind creations to what?
I missed WHAT!?!?!?
I need this now more than ever.
I would trade a foot, possibly even one of my own, to have the smallest Ken Carns piece in my own home, and there's a lot of things I'd trade to have ever been able to meet him, or even only exchange a couple of e-mails with him. To tell him how much appreciation I have for even the smallest, simplest of his offspring that I'm lucky enough to be acquainted with, to let him know in a not-at-all-creepy-way that minds like his are more than just my creative inspirations in life, but my favorite thing about our entire species.
More than ever, I know that if I could do literally anything with my life, anything at all within the confines of reality, it would be to build and operate this exact same sort of attraction. I've thought about it since I was a gross, creepy little child, and it's Ken's visions of Unnatural History that have really hammered it home now that I'm a gross, creepy childman.
Someday, Ken. Someday, some way, I will make your ghost proud.