Creative Life News Blog

Quirky Museums and Outsider Art

Museums and Treasure Hunts

Museums can be like treasure hunts. World-famous museums are filled with so many renowned treasures, it can be overwhelming to find the particular ones that you, personally, value. In contrast, many odd little museums just pop up when you're traveling through places, and they invite you in. You enter because you're curious, expecting nothing in particular.


I like visiting museums. I can get lost in them for days at a time, or until they kick me out. I'm particularly fond of museums of natural history, anthropology, the planetarium, and art museums of all sorts. But what I love are the surprises of discovering odd little specialty museums that you stumble upon during road trips (remember cross-country road trips?). Often such collections reflect curiosities of their geo-cultural location, like a museum of local cacti in Arizona, railroads in Pennsylvania, or alien UFO sightings in New Mexico. Most places with any history at all have some version of a museum. Creating and leaving an intentional visible record seems a human thing to do.

Mooney Warther Museum in Ohio
Mooney's workshop with arrowhead designs by wife, Frieda (shown with her button designs .

A good example is a family-maintained museum in Dover, Ohio (Amish country) dedicated to the work of knife-maker and carver, Mooney Warther (b.1885) and to his wife Frieda's button-collection designs. Mooney's knives are still produced and beautifully functional. His train replicas are incredible with their intricately carved ebony, ivory, and walnut with thousands of exactly designed moving parts (watch them in motion at https://www.youtube.m/watch?v=KYYFNff5e20).





Not everyone likes museums. I know some people who dislike the confines of many art museums. They regard them as mausoleums and would rather see even historically treasured art in less formal settings. But that takes a lot of space and design. Only a fraction of the Vatican's huge art collection can be displayed, while thousands more treasures are stored away. Frankly, I'd rather get to see what I can. For sure, though, some museum settings are more inviting than others.


Among my favourite art museums are those housing personal collections in former resident mansions, like New York's Frick or Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner. Based upon the idiosyncratic tastes of their owners (not museum or investment committees), these collections are both more focused and eclectic than those of larger museums. The setting and architecture of the Gardner, especially, adds intimacy and delight to her diverse personal collection of masterworks (since amplified with additional works and building space).

Isabella Stewart Garner
courtyard of Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

I especially like museums that pop up unexpectedly in places you don't expect them. They can be filled with all sorts of curiosities and wonders. In light of my last column on the uncanny and dolls in art, let me show you a bit more of the Pollock's Toy Museum in London, England. It's really more of a curiosity shop than a museum. Along with this little shop, I'll share a larger treasure, the Museum of Naif Art in Nice, France.These two very different "museums" are linked by their focus on objects and art created outside the conventionally recognized borders that historically have defined "fine art".


This distinction of not being fine art has itself become a category that many people treasure. Terms like folk art, outsider art, deviant art, and graffiti might well apply to refer to art that's always existed outside and apart from art academies and museums. Instead, they refer to art typically done by people without formal training or payment. Some, like Henry Darger (whose story I'll mention later), even keep their art secret. So why do they do it? For love, dedication, belief, obsession, desire, reverence, wish-fulfillment, and on. Why did the cave-painters paint? Surely not so that tourists millenia hence could visit their caves.


Pollock's Toy Museum

I've mentioned this place in my "Uncanny Doll" column. I happened upon it during my last visit to London in early BC (before Covid). Somewhere in the whirlwind of days spent visiting that town's justly revered art museums, I stopped to enter a small, dusty, dimly lit brick dwelling in Bloomsbury called a toy museum. Downstairs was a crowded shop of toys; upstairs (for a fee) was the toy museum.

Toys accompany you as you trudge up a narrow set of stairs. You see dolls in different states of composure and decomposition, toy soldiers, teddy bears with tufts of fur long gone, and a disarray of doll houses. In fact, being in this house felt a bit like being inside an old dollhouse: crooked walls, uneven ceilings, creaking stairs. Disappointing for me, there were very few mechanical toys. Still, there was much to see in the three crowded little floors. (Please forgive my poor photos: the best I could do at the time and under the glass-reflective conditions. Still, they can serve as inspiration for your artworks or memory-history trips.)


There's a room full of antique dolls. The sense of overcrowding made me want some sort of birth-control for dolls. A bit sad to see the dust collecting inside. But where's an old doll to live these days?


The assortment provided a mini social history of sorts. "Colonial" dolls, "exotic" dolls, Falkland War toys, many tin toy soldiers, miniature fox hunts, and so on. But I won't get into that here. Instead, let me show some of what I saw. So many different kinds of dolls. I suppose part of the charm of this "museum" for me was accepting the disorder, the jumble of different objects placed together.


There were painted cloth dolls, some of which I rather liked for their naive, if weathered, outlook on life, like the one at bottom left, still housed in her closet. Or, a few more cloth dolls juxtaposed with an OXO tin of the time. Even if not always endearing or cuddly, there's an awkwardness about these cloth dolls that appeals to me.


Here's how inspiration can strike. After my visit, even just a crummy photo (below) of vintage Kewpie dolls taken at Pollock's was enough to get me going on my painting, Kewpie Family at Home painting.













Jumbled in the display were more families of wooden, joint-limbed dolls, like one shown below in a lace-bordered box. Beside it is a paper doll with moveable joints, along with a tiny carriage and a fenced-in music box. Perhaps they're all of a similar vintage?Look at the jointed doll's hands: they're on backwards!

The many paper theaters on display reminded me of how much I loved pop-up illustrated books. Of course, there were teddy bears, too. Rather ratty old ones, including one touted as the world's oldest from 1905. Did you know the Teddy bear is named after Theodore Roosevelt? The story is that one day, when this paradoxical hunter-conservationist was out in the American wilds, he came across a huge bear. He would not shoot it because he saw a cub nearby. Good sport. Thereafter, the little toy bears were named Teddy. I suppose it could also have been because of their mutually small and furry resemblance.

Museum of Naive Art in Nice, France

The Musée International d'Art Naïf is a beautiful museum in a villa in Nice, just moments from the French Riviera's stylish promenade. Based on the collection of A. Jakovsky, it houses painting, sculpture, fiber-art, and other projects that celebrate individual creativity done outside established artistic channels. You can find work by Rousseau (probably the most famous "naive" artist who made it big time), but far more works are by artists who didn't. Much anonymous work is displayed, as well as work signed by artists living in psychiatric institutions and other less frequented sources for art in various areas of the world.


Street Art Even transient populations create "museums" that commemorate their culture. They can be in the form of outdoor artifacts that become eroding treasures. Or they can appear as transitory graffiti that gets officially erased. I hear the street and graffiti art mecca is at Bushwick, Brooklyn. But walk into any urban alleyways (you're unlikely to get mugged in cities like Vancouver)) and you'll find derelict walls painted with graffiti art. Hurry though, they're often covered over. Until recently, that is, when cities have discovered the value of street art. Many places now have official projects to organize murals on public spaces, the gentrification of what was once rebel art.

Outsider Art

The case of Henry Darger has become a famous one in Outsider Art. I first came across his obsessive work decades ago at the American Museum of Folk Art in New York. The reclusive Darger worked as a janitor and produced thousands of pages of artwork and text secretly over his lifetime. His work was discovered accidentally in 1973 by the tenant who'd moved into his room in Chicago after Darger's relocation to an old-age home (he died six months later). Here's the crammed room where he lived and created fantasy worlds in thousands of pages of text and art.

Henry Darger home
Darger's home, photo byKeizo Kitajima and Yukiko Koide Presents, Tokyo.1999

Darger used tracings from children's coloring books, comic strips and ads as the basis for his massive series of hand-written stories and pencil-drawn, water-color elaborations of a personal world filled with diverse children with themes of their need for protection. Darger’s final and most renowned work is titled The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is Known as the Realms of the Unreal of the Glandeco-Angelinnian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion. Whole dissertations have been written about humble Henry Darger. I was fascinated to see the scope of his work, his evolving artistic skill with time and dedication, the insistence and coherence of his fantastical narrative themes. Though his works garner a small fortune now and are in collections of the MOMA, Art Institute of Chicago, and the Smithsonian, I somehow doubt this outsider would feel pleased. Reclusive and wounded in his personal history, I think his enormous and complex creativity sought to assuage old wounds, be heroic in his own story, remediate the world, and to find solace.

Nowadays the lines may be blurring between insider and outsider art, between fine art and folk art, given the commercial world can make fortunes from either side in the flip of the coin. But "outsider art" typically derives from the artist's internal imperatives, rather than to please others or the marketplace. It's not always the most comforting art, and it can be disturbing. But art has always held the potential of going beyond the ordinary into realms both positive and negative. Creative art, as always, amplifies the full range of human experience and imagination.


Do it Your Way : Insider or Outsider I enjoy the itinerant art I find when walking around many places, home and elsewhere. I've collected affordable street and folk art from many places in my travels. But I also love hunting the treasures in museums. There's always something special to be found. Trouble is, it can be an overwhelming amount of something special. There's a limit to how much a person can process, even if one wants to take it all in.


The same goes for "outsider art" Especially now with millions of internet postings, there's an overwhelming amount of material to look at, deviant or traditional. It takes an attitude of openness and some patient discernment to search and find what most engages your own feelings and experiences, what excites you as extraordinary, what invites you to look more and to experience more fully all that creative life offers. It isn't about the 'like' clicks of others. It's about you, what you care about, how you want to be...creatively.



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