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In Plain Sight: The Freaky But True Peculiarium and Museum

Saturday, October 25, 2014


Photo credit: Stephen Saltzman

Do you remember your first boxing nun? I do. I experienced my first at Archie McPhees in Seattle’s Fremont district shortly after they opened in 1983. I have always had a fascination with curiosity shops and it was (okay, is) coupled with an intense fascination with what we used to call Freak Shows and now we simply call, inappropriate and wrong. In grade school I memorized the Dewey Decimal system call numbers for the fascinating book, Very Special People. No one at Raleigh Hills Elementary School even came close to having checked out that book more than me. Long before I learned that the term “human oddities” was almost as insensitive as showcasing these humans themselves, I was riveted by their stories and photographs.

Curiosity is in the air. The upcoming season of American Horror Story is subtitled Freak Show, featuring a “freak circus” managed by Jessica Lange’s character. Recently, an attempt to satirize the practice of displaying foreign people for commercial or education purposes came to a screeching halt as Europe’s largest multi-arts and conference venue, the Barbican, cancelled a highly controversial Exhibit B “human zoo” installation. Thankfully, ethnological show business remains deeply buried in our library books. 

A frequent Portland showman, Enigma (aka Paul Lawrence) represents today’s freak show oddities with his chosen body modifications of full body tattoos (including eyeballs), horn implants, ear notching and reshaping, and multiple body piercings. The popularity of these types of body modifications has coincided with and extended into a fascination with real or imagined sorta-humans like zombies, aliens and Big Foot.

It is out of this world of curiosities and freak shows that Portland’s own FreakyButTrue Peculiarium and Museum was born. 

In Case You're Curious: 10 Things You Might Not Have Known About The FreakyButTrue Peculiarium:

1. The Peculiarium (2234 NW Thurman Street, Portland) is one of the few remaining curiosity shops and freak-ish museums in the country. Maybe the lack of freak and curiosity establishments has to do with the fact that it takes more to amaze us and ignite our curiosity due to immediate access to oddities on the Internet. Perhaps it has to do with the fact that it is no longer acceptable to showcase people born with physical differences.

2. The current iteration of the museum was created by Mike Wellins and friends and, although the sign on the building says it was established in 1956, documents indicate that it was started as a ‘zine in 1987. It’s part shop/part museum. Mike is a self-described “top tier curmudgeon”.

3. The museum admission is free, and the docents claim to neither owe nor promise visitors anything. They do, however, suggest that sensitive individuals stay home because of the specimens and scenes depicting autopsies, electrocutions and the other blood-and-guts imagery.

4. Although the museum gets its share of odd visitors, it has less to do with freaks and more to do with what is freaky. There is a strong emphasis on sorta-human freaks like Sasquatch, zombies and aliens.
5. Historically, taxidermy has held an importance place in freak show museum and curiosity shop tradition. In keeping with that tradition established by PT Barnum, the Peculiarium displays a “75 million-year old” Wooly Giraffe Mammoth said to have been excavated from “prehistoric NW 23rd Avenue”. The museum is supposed to be a place of learning and terror. Their Ouija boards have facilitated the successful terrorization of cheating spouses and other pesky victims.

6. The shop attracts a lot of Squatchers, people who track and study Sasquatch (Big Foot).  Some visitors come to find cures and distractions for the demons that have followed them their whole lives. About 10 percent of the visitors don’t understand the shop and leave rolling or covering their eyes.

7. If you like to eat insects without having to catch them first, this is the place for you. Consuming the Bug Eaters Delight, which consists of two scoops of ice cream, caramel and Choco ooze, an ant cookie, bug larvae, whipped cream, nuts, sprinkles and a cherry, is the surest way to get inducted into the Insectatarium Club.  The assortment of bug candy and larvae ice cream toppings makes the options at the Salt and Straw neighbors down the street look pedestrian.

8.While the Pecularium isn’t a total cure for the pop-culture gifts and blasphemic-punching-toy desires like NW 23rd’s dearly departed Wham was, it does have perhaps a more interesting share of old-timey gum, candy, gag gifts, novelty items and ephemera. There are boxed gift sets for sale that certainly cannot be found anywhere else in town…and perhaps not anywhere else on earth. They’re great if you like edible body parts and fluids.
9. In addition to the scientific, diseased zombie brain and alien autopsy exhibits, there is a separate gallery section with one-of-a-kind sculptures and paintings. Most of these are modifications of “thrift shop” treasures and are called Non-Elective Retroactive Collaboration (NERC) art. Much of the art is for sale. All is signed and dated.

10. The Pecularium is an interesting place to network among folks who may have a more severe conspiratorial or otherworldly perspective. Although the place is certainly sensitive to the shift away from labeling folks “freaks” and gawking at “freak shows”, it is a good place to elevate your curiosity in what is truly freaky.

I admit that I before following my curiosity into the Peculiarium, I hadn’t given as much thought to Big Foot as perhaps I should have. He’d be cool to see, but I don’t think I’ll ever qualify as a Squatcher. I don’t see myself joining the Insectatarium Club because I have consumed enough insects to know that they’re not my favorite, and I’m lactose intolerant. I would, however, be willing to trade my boxing nun for many of the curiosities found at The FreakyButTrue Pecularium.

A graduate degree in behavioral science, three generations of Portland blood in her veins, 20 years as a real-estate broker, and a lifetime of delving into other people’s business has caused Becki Saltzman’s severe curiosity disorder. She is the author of Arousing the Buy Curious: Real Estate Pillow Talk for Patrons and Professionals, founder of Oomau Media, and she looks forward to expanding membership in the Tribe of the Curious.

Banner photo credit: Stephen Saltzman


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