Our friend Ilise (aka the Lady Aye) organized an outing to the newly opened Ripley's Believe It Or Not! "Odditorium" on 42nd Street in Times Square. Our group of five met on the evening of July 3rd for the excursion, and there is really no better way to begin your mid-week celebration of the birth of America then with a trip to the Hall of The Western Tendency to Exoticize the Different. To really do it up right, American-style, we went up the street to Applebees and had giant rini-rita-colada drinks. USA! USA!
So, Ripley's came with a rush of nostalgia for me, because when I was a kid a frequent vacation destination for my family was Gatlinburg, Tennessee, a tourist trap town in the middle of stunning Smoky Mountain vistas, and my favorite place in Gatlinburg was the Ripley's Believe It Or Not! museum. It was a little dingy and threadbare, but I loved it. Also, loved the TV show narrated with maximum gravelly melodrama by Jack Palance. And Robert Ripley himself is such a great early-Twentieth Century character, the globe-hopping artifact collector and chronicler of the world's natural and manmade oddities...well, now it's 2007. So, can we really still get away with the displays of tribal ceremonial masks from New Guinea, Sub-saharan Africa and South Asia, with piped in ooga-booga drum music, and fake fire pits and jungle noises? Huh, I guess so. Interesting. Really? Huh. And, isn't it a little disturbing that we can still display a room full of actual shrunken human heads with funny captions of the "don't lose your head!" variety, or my favorite, with a display of the decapitated and shriveled heads of children, and the label titled "no child left behind." Really? That's not inappropriate? Wow.
Last year in Paris, the Musée du quai Branly opened, dedicated to the art history of the world's indigenous and non-European peoples; since its ribbon-cutting it has been immensely controversial, sparking an international cultural debate on what seems to be its ghettoization of the non-European tradition through excessively exotic and faux-tribal displays, with varied cultures and timeframes mixed together for purely aesthetic reasons. And yet, here we are, in Times Square, at the Odditorium, exact same thing and no one bats an eyelash. USA! USA!
Now, in the spirit of full disclosure, we had a blast in the place. Along with all of this stuff, there are plenty of "freaks of nature" (cows with six legs! Johnny Eck the half-man!) that appealed to our groups love of the sideshow, ballyhoo-tent-show tradition; and all of that great stuff like Jesus carved on a pinhead and the Spanish Armada built to scale out of matchsticks, that sort of thing. It's beautifully put together and there are lots of interactive elements that we had a good time with. And there's a room full of truly grotesque European and American torture devices from past centuries right up to the Twentieth, and from an anthropological standpoint that didn't bother me at all, because this is all about how fucked up my own ancestors are! USA! U-ok, you get the idea. Anyway, some fun pix of our excursion can be found here
. Honestly, it's worth a visit, and unlike most aspects of the new Times Square, this feels like it belongs there.