Trolling for Penis Bones (2008)

Hillary Chute

The only troll museum in the world ("except maybe in Norway," surmises proprietor Reverend Jen, a rubber-elf-ear-wearing artist-author) is housed on the sixth floor of an Orchard Street walkup. "It's a reaction against museums that are like mausoleums," explains Jen of her cozy, interactive Lower East Side Troll Museum (122 Orchard Street, 560-7235; by appointment only; sliding scale of donations accepted). Hundreds of trolls in all sizes and outfits (my favorite: a cheerleader with a "THS" jersey); a souped-up Troll Shanty complete with Houses of the Holy and KISS posters; a faux "Armani at the Troll Museum" exhibit; troll-themed TV trays, pictures ("Beach Pa-Troll"), hats ("Out of Con-Troll"), lunch boxes, books, videos, and paintings; and personal notes of explanation and affection deck the walls of this shrine to one of America's most enduring dolls. "Trolls harm nobody," enthuses Jen, cooing at her one-pound Chihuahua curled up on a shag rug in the Shanty as she recalls the backlash figures like GI Joe and Barbie have suffered. We could all use the levity that the sight of trolls en masse inspires: "Trolls get popular when there's a recession," Jen notes. "The popularity of trolls coincides with traumatic times in American history." (Hint: Spending time with the delightfully unselfconscious Jen— who dubs herself "the patron saint of the uncool"— is as much fun as communing with her potbellied creatures.)

A stone's throw away is the singular Freakatorium, El Museo Loco (57 Clinton Street, 375-0475; Thursday through Sunday 1 to 7 p.m., or by appointment; $5), a classy treasure chest of curiosities belonging to sword swallower Johnny Fox, whose focus is the rich history of America's earliest museums, from P.T. Barnum's American Museum to the Bowery Dime Museums. The walrus penis bone (other penis bones on display: coyote, mink, fox, raccoon) is enough to make you feel you're getting your $5 worth. But then you spy the Jivaro Shrunken Head (it's real, it's the size of a tennis ball); conjoined piglets in a jar; an assload of taxidermy, including a gorgeous zebra head; giant's rings; Tom Thumb's vest, gloves, and trunk; the sideshow hoaxes "The Furry Mink Fish" and "The Feejee Mermaid" (that would be a fish and a monkey stuck together); a 16th-century ice skate; the world's smallest working pistol; voodoo dolls; old photographs ("Dog Face Boy," "The Elephant Skin Girl"); beautiful vintage "Believe It or Not" posters covering the ceiling. Alive things on display are nasty long black millipedes, a tarantula, a boa constrictor, and five or so cockroaches from Madagascar, which apparently sing if you touch their swollen bodies. But the icing on the cake is . . . Sammy Davis Jr.'s glass eye!

Remember those creepy dead-people photographs from The Others? They're from the Burns Archive (140 East 38th Street, 889-1938; by appointment only; basic fee $15, additional fees vary according to requests), an extraordinary private museum for researchers and specialists, in the residence of practicing ophthalmologist Dr. Stanley Burns. With over 700,000 vintage historical photographs on "all esoteric topics except sports," the place boasts what is widely recognized as the world's foremost collection of photographs documenting the dark and unusual. The medical section alone (numbering around 60,000 images, dating from 1839) includes pictures to make even the steeliest stomach lurch, like the only vintage published shots ever of female genital mutilation. (Dr. Burns is a documentarian, not an exploiter, of the grotesque; his lead in salvaging images of syphilitic facial deformations, for example—so horrible that other collectors threw them out—has benefited historians.) You can see a picture of the last government-sponsored crucifixion (Japan, 1868); private, unreported, unedited photograph albums belonging to Nazi soldiers ("You can't see this anywhere else in New York," Dr. Burns assures); disturbingly compelling postmortem portraits. Most recently the author of Sleeping Beauty II: Grief, Bereavement and the Family in Memorial Photography, Dr. Burns says the impulse behind the archive (which he's been building since the mid '70s) is that he "wants people to know these things exist."


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