What Is a Museum – Ripley’s Believe It or Not

After the last post on Cabinets of Curiosities, I wanted to address the Ripley’s franchise as a separate post.

Ripley's of St. Augustine
Ripley’s of St. Augustine

Today, a modern cabinet of curiosities is the Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museums found in many tourist destinations across the United States and in nine other countries.

Robert Ripley was an explorer, adventurer, and cartoonist who profited from the many gaffes and new things that he brought back from over 200 countries he visited during his lifetime.   By 1929 he claimed to “have traveled in 64 countries… and the strangest thing I saw was man.”  He brought back images, casts, and stories about the people and things he saw in his travels; in addition to opening a museum to display these items, he also drew them as cartoons which were published throughout his lifetime.  The first Ripley’s Odditorium opened in 1933 in Chicago, with collections based on his travels and the experiences he had.

Me with ole Robert
Me with ole Robert

Today, the museums are sometimes still billed as odditoriums, and though they do not contain living people in their exhibits, wax and plastic figures of people who were considered to be freaks are still on display.  Most items in the museums are reproductions or complete fakes, called gaffes, such as the famous Barnum hoax the Feegee Mermaid.

The Ripley’s franchise of museums and exhibits are for entertainment, not education, much like the original sideshows and dime museums of the past.  The modern Ripley’s franchise includes the odditoriums or museums, perhaps the most recognizable of their brand, as well as aquariums, mini-golf, haunted adventures, and mirror mazes to name a few.

So, are these sites educational?  Are they museums??  They call themselves museums. 

Juvenile, but memorable!
Juvenile, but memorable!

I visited the Ripley’s Believe It or Not franchise in St. Augustine, Florida last fall with a fellow PhD researcher.  I thought the place was mildly entertaining (especially since some kids before us had pants-ed all the figures).  It was also an interesting study of the cabinet of curiosities phenomena as well as the sideshow, since many of the first exhibits that still remain today are figures of people with physical differences such as the tall man, half man, obese woman, etc.

When I taught Public History, I asked my students what their favorite museum they have visited was.  More than one mentioned Ripley’s (I won’t lie – it broke my heart).  So are they museums?  That depends on your definition of the word.

Let’s look at the site based on the basic tenets discussed in the last post (and please feel free to add your thoughts to these as well):

  •  Non-profit – no – they are absolutely a commercial profit-generating industry
  •  Permanent – ok, maybe. The one in St. Augustine has been there since 1950
 Open to the public – they are definitely open.

    I'm pretty sure that's some Bieber artwork made from candy.
    I’m pretty sure that’s some Bieber artwork made from candy.
  •  Public service (including aesthetics, enjoyment, and most especially education) – the building is architecturally aesthetic, since it is housed in a historic building; it is enjoyable enough for a wasted afternoon hour; it could be considered educational in some ways, but what about educational integrity
  • Collections (covering acquisition, preservation and research) – There is one curator for every franchise.  The items are basically manufactured reproductions and are not historical artifacts collections (in general).  There also appears to be no research done on the artifacts.
  • Exhibits (embracing communication and interpretation) – there are no docents or interpreters, which is fine… but there is also not really any interpretation.

Do you consider Ripley’s to be a “museum”? 

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