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Basements of the Damned

Mike Dash says Rat Kings, tentacles of the Giant Octopus, Fairy Coffins and Ice from the sky need a good home ... and where better than the Charles Fort Institute?

This first appeared in Time Out in 1995. Copyright Mike Dash 1995.


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    Strange things lurk in the dusty storerooms of great museums -- rarely-opened boxes stuffed with freaks and mermaids, fish that have fallen from the sky and the fragmentary remains of unknown animals. While the few objects the curators deem worthy of exhibit sit in the public galleries, awaiting new admirers, their damned brethren rot below them in the dark, still vaults, crumbling slowly into nothingness.

    In 1995, Fortean Times mounted a major exhibition of these wonders of the vaults in association with the Croydon Clocktower museum. Two years' of patient detective work exhumed such startling exhibits as a group of fairy coffins, found buried below Arthur's Seat in Edinburgh, a pair of haunted seamen's boots, from the Scottish Fisheries' Museum, said to move of their own accord, and a pickled rat king -- a group of eight rats which had knotted themselves inextricably together by their tails -- from the Zoological Institute in Gottingen. Few if any of the more than 100 objects thus assembled were on regular display in their own museums, yet their collective drawing power was considerable; the exhibition broke all attendance records at the Clocktower, as well as attracting considerable media attention.

    What a shame that the exhibits were soon returned to their respective museums -- where they were no doubt consigned once more to the nether reaches of the vaults. But what an opportunity there must be for a permanent exhibit of the bizarre and the bewildering -- something to encourage the senses of wonder and enquiry, as any good museum should do.

    Let's not forget that many modern galleries began life in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as precisely such cabinets of curiosity. The British Museum, when it opened its doors in 1752, included among its holdings 'monsters preserved in spirits' and a landscape painted on a spider's web -- exhibits that were soon joined by a stone resembling a loaf, a starved rat and cat, a desiccated thumb dug from the foundations of a St James's coffee house, and a monstrous pig from Chalfont St Giles. Such apparently eccentric collections reflected not superstitious muddle but a post-Renaissance world-view in which God's purpose could be discerned in the careful juxtaposition of wonders -- one that, once replaced by the Victorian notion of an immutable classification revealed by science, led swiftly to the dispersal and destruction of many remarkable and irreplaceable exhibits.

    Where today could one find such lost wonders as the Royal Society's bottle full of stag's tears, the Smithsonian's jars full of roast chicken-sized lumps of flesh hacked from a giant octopus whose tentacles spanned 150 feet, and the 'real werewolf' displayed by a Margrave of Ansbach?

    A Fortean museum, properly funded, would not only preserve and display objects of similarly irresistible interest, such as the frogs, nuts, human excrement and smoked haddock that irregularly shower from the sky and the corpses of the half-dozen jungle cats, pumas, and swamp cats run over and killed on British roads in the past decade; it could also act as a repository for the half-million or so reports of the remarkable gathered by the magazine since 1973 and sponsor some much-needed research into phenomena such as phantom social workers, flying manhole covers and phone calls from the dead, which tend not to figure prominently when scientific research grants are allocated.

    Already Fortean Times has made modest progress in this direction. The magazine's scholarly journal, Fortean Studies, gathers the latest detailed research by many of the most respected students in the field, while an annual conference, UnConvention, attracts upwards of 1,000 visitors to the Institute of Education to hear lectures on topics ranging from FBI raids on satanic cults to the sexual aspects of British fertility rites and the unidentified flying wallaby slasher of Newquay. UnConvention is the already the largest gathering of its kind in the world, and a much-needed window onto the present state of eccentric research.

    It is, however, only a start. In the United States, scientific and humanist bodies have combined to raise $8 million to fund a research centre for the avowedly-sceptical Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal. A London-based British equivalent, combining an archive centre, electronic access to international databases, an exhibition gallery and resources for investigators would not only prove a popular attraction and an immensely worthwhile contribution to the knowledge of mankind -- it would finally assuage the lament penned by Charles Fort, that pioneering scholar of the rum and the remarkable: 'I accept that over the door of every museum, into which such things enter, is written 'Abandon Hope'.


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Mike Dash is Publisher of Fortean Times for John Brown Publishing and author of the recent, well-received overview of Forteana, The Borderlands

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