Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Museum of Unnatural History

While in Washington, D.C., a few weekends ago, I almost literally stumbled upon a brand-new storefront called the Museum of Unnatural History. (It's located in the midst of some new development near the Columbia Heights Metro stop, an area where I used to live. It used to be a bit hard-scrabble. Now there's a Target, Best Buy, Bed Bath & Beyond and Giant supermarket, alongside the beautifully renovated Tivoli Theater, which was an unused husk back in the day.)

Taxidermied coyote hanging upside down from the ceiling
Unnatural History, hmm. Having visited the Museum of Jurassic Technology in L.A., I wasn't too surprised by the off-the-wall (or off-the-ceiling) exhibits.

Small diorama of two human figures being choked by a mummy while two meerkats watch
This little diorama shows two treasure-seekers struggling in the Mummy's grip, while a pair of giant meerkats look on.

What was this place, anyway? It was too small to be an actual museum. And most of the museum appeared to be a store selling a bunch of funny products.

Wheel of Fortune-like wheel with multiple answers
The wheel of inquiry, just inside the door, beckoned to a pre-teen girl and her friend. Ask it any question, they were told (Why is the sky blue?) and see what it has to say. The answer the wheel gave her was "That darn butterfly."

Finally, I asked one of the helpful young guys hanging out at the counter what the place was all about. The museum (and its store), it turns out, are part of a nonprofit organization called 826DC, which offers tutoring and workshops to K-12 kids, often with a writing and publishing angle. It was founded in San Francisco by literary golden boy Dave Eggers.

The original 826 storefront is the Pirate Supply Store, and each of the seven other locations has a different intriguing theme and set of humorous products. The Museum of Unnatural History's products are designed by Oliver Uberti, creative director of 826DC and design editor at National Geographic.

Species Identification Flowchart poster in green and black
A species identification flowchart. My favorite part: Q: Can you see it? A: Not all of it. If from the neck down: It's you.

Cans of Primordial Soup, looking like Campbell's cans
Primordial soup!

Wooden box with a lid labeled Budget Hamster Crypt
Just what every rodent owner needs.

Patent medicine-like bottles with pieces of wood in them
Probably my favorite set of items is ostensibly from the makers of Petrified Wood: Confused Wood, Essentially Distraught Wood, and Disaffected Wood.

Despite their consistently nice packaging, all of the products in the store are basically gag gifts with no real substance or use. The proceeds from their sales clearly support a good cause but, still, I couldn't help thinking of a saying I once heard: "Design decorates the acceleration toward apocalypse."

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