April 26, 2012
by Harriet Baskas
Comments Off on Celebrate the strange on Obscura Day

Celebrate the strange on Obscura Day

Whether you’re home or on the road this weekend, check to see if an Obscura Day event is taking place nearby.

If there’s room in your travel plans for activities ranging from a guided tour of the world’s second largest particle accelerator to a behind-the-scenes tour of Alcatraz, then Obscura Day, on Saturday, April 28, is for you.

Organized by Atlas Obscura, a website co-founders Dylan Thuras and Joshua Foer call a “collaborative compendium of amazing places that aren’t found in your average guidebook,” Obscura Day is a celebration of offbeat expeditions and behind-the-scenes tours at more than 100 cities in the U.S. and around the world. Ticket prices for events vary and many are already sold out.

“For our third annual Obscura Day, institutions, tour guides and individuals are going to lead tours, walks and adventures and show off spaces and parts of collections that people don’t normally get to see,” said Thuras, who recently returned from his honeymoon in Southeast Asia. (“I promised my wife it would be a ‘normal’ trip, but we couldn’t resist,” said Thuras. “We found a wonderful museum of taxidermy in Hanoi and an enchanting museum with cool medical specimens in Bangkok.”)

On Obscura Day, the Brooklyn, N.Y.-based Thuras plans to attend several events, including a tour of abandoned beach areas on Staten Island and a visit to Columbia University’s Rutherford Observatory. Also in New York, an urban foraging tour of Central Park will show participants how to identify edible plants and herbs.

Elsewhere, this year’s Obscura Day events include everything from a tour of the Fermilab particle accelerator in Batavia, Ill., to an expedition to Japan’s largest stone-carved Buddha and the 1,553 stone-carved monks of Nihon-ji. “They’re in a beautiful, crumbling ruin in a forest and you need to take a train and a boat and a bus just to get there,” said Thuras.

The worldwide schedule of Obscura Day events “will help raise awareness of some of the lesser known attractions and wonders around the world,” said Doug Kirby, publisher of the website RoadsideAmerica.com.

In San Francisco, Annetta Black, senior editor of the Atlas Obscura and vice-president of the Atlas Obscura Society, will be leading Bay Area events that include a tour of the USS Iowa, a WWII battleship leaving soon to become a museum near Los Angeles, and an evening salon talk at the Long Now Museum, where the discussion will focus on the importance of planning beyond our own lifetimes. There will also be an after-dark tour exploring the off-limits areas of Alcatraz.

The Museum of Human Disease in Kensington, Australia, is returning as an Obscura Day participant, and this year it has added a workshop on human tissue preservation. Participants will get to preserve a pig’s heart in a hands-on demonstration.

“I just don’t think anyone else is really offering that kind of opportunity, which makes me very happy,” said Black, who sums up Obscura Day as a great way to “build curiosity about the places we live, which leads to cultural engagement and an interest in local history.”

Obscura Day is “really just fun field trips for adults,” said Thuras, “that will make you realize that the unusual sometimes comes in an unusual package.”

My story on Obscura Day first appeared on msnbc.com’s Overhead Bin

April 20, 2012
by Harriet Baskas
Comments Off on To the Bat Cave: Bracken Bat Cave now open

To the Bat Cave: Bracken Bat Cave now open

The public will finally get to see a natural, nightly show that’s totally batty.

It’s a hidden treasure – that’s alive!

Bracken Cave, the Texas home of the world’s largest bat colony, is open for public tours for the very first time.

(Photo credit © Merlin D. Tuttle, Bat Conservation International)

From April through October, millions of Mexican free-tailed bats move into the cave, which sits on 697 acres of protected land near New Braunfels, Texas. The summer gathering creates one of the largest concentrations of mammals on earth.

“We haven’t actually counted them all, but estimates are somewhere in the neighborhood of 20 million bats,” said Fran Hutchins, Bracken Bat Cave coordinator for Bat Conservation International (BCI), which owns the property.

Since 1992, only BCI members have been allowed to witness the nightly tornado of hungry bats emerging from a sinkhole at the mouth of the cave. But this summer BCI has joined up with a neighboring attraction, Natural Bridge Caverns, to offer public tours to the cave.

“It’s a spectacular sight. The bats form a vortex dense enough to show up on airport radar,” said Hutchins. “They fly in a 60-mile radius in search of food and in one night will eat hundreds of tons of insects, which makes the farmers around here very happy.”

Tours last three to four hours and begin with an orientation at Natural Bridge Caverns. Visitors then form a convoy and drive down a gravel road on BCI property to the cave.

“It’s a remote site that has been kept purposefully natural,” said Travis Wuest, whose family has owned Natural Bridge Caverns for three generations. “We tell people to bring binoculars because there’s a whole ecosystem of other animals, including falcons, hawks, raptors and owls, that come out to try and eat the bats.”

The Bracken Bat Flight tours are scheduled several times a week, through October. Reservations are required, as tours are limited to 60 people per night. Cost: $24.99 (adult or child), with a portion of the proceeds supporting conservation of the Bracken site. (Combination tickets with Natural Bridge Caverns are also available.)

Hutchins said bat fans should also be sure to visit Austin, about an hour away. “Bracken Cave is home to the largest bat colony in the world, but Austin is home to the largest urban bat colony in the world.”

Austin’s 1.5 million bats make their summer home underneath a downtown bridge. Each night hundreds of bat-watchers gather by the Ann W. Richards Congress Avenue Bridge, along the river banks of Lady Bird Lake, to watch the city bats head out for their evening meal of moths, mosquitoes and pests.

Austin celebrates its bats with a free annual Bat Fest, which this year will take place on Saturday, Aug. 25.

(My story: Holy bat cave: new tour puts millions of bats on display, first appeared on msnbc.com.)

April 18, 2012
by Harriet Baskas
Comments Off on Star Wars Identities: The Exhibition

Star Wars Identities: The Exhibition

The Montréal Science Center is premiering Star Wars Identities: The Exhibition from April 19 through September 16, 2012.

Produced by X3 Productions and made possible by Lucasfilm Ltd., the exhibition explores the nature of human identity through the magic of the Star Wars universe and its characters.

The exhibit includes about 200 objects from the Lucasfilm Archives and gives visitors an opportunity to explore human identity by creating their  own Star Wars character by combining elements of their own identity and those of their favorite characters.

After Montreal, Star Wars Identities will go on to 11 other venues in Canada, Europe, Latin America, Asia and the Pacific region.

All photo: ©2012 Lucasfilm Ltd. & TM. All rights reserved. Used under authorization.

April 12, 2012
by Harriet Baskas
Comments Off on Grateful Dead exhibit at Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and Museum

Grateful Dead exhibit at Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and Museum

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland, Ohio, has lined up a festival’s worth of special events in anticipation of the April 14 ceremony welcoming the 2012 inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

“Grateful Dead: The Long, Strange Trip” includes Mickey Hart’s custom-painted drum kit. Photo: Carl Fowler / Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum


Headlining the list is the April 12 opening of a major exhibit filled with treasures relating to the Grateful Dead, an iconic American rock band that formed in the 1960s and was known for its eclectic music, live performances and dedicated followers, known as “Deadheads.”

“In a 30-year career, this group wrote their own rules and created a community unlike any band before or since,” said Jim Henke, vice president of Exhibits and Curatorial Affairs at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. “Their role in American history and culture is deep, complex, and seminal,” said Nicholas Meriwether, the Grateful Dead Archivist at UC Santa Cruz.

Grateful Dead: The Long, Strange Trip” includes more than 100 Dead-related artifacts ranging from band instruments and original artwork to song manuscripts, clothing, fan art, rare newsletters and other objects collected by band members, associates and friends. Many of the items are on loan from the Grateful Dead Archive at the University of California-Santa Cruz and have never been seen before.

Among the highlights: the band’s hotline answering machine, five guitars that belonged to guitarist and band co-founder Jerry Garcia (including his Travis Bean TB5), Mickey Hart’s custom-painted drum kit, the original lyric manuscripts for “Truckin’,” “Box of Rain” and “Sugaree,” and the tie-dyed, marijuana-leaf adorned “Father Time” robe concert promoter Bill Graham wore at many of the band’s New Year’s Eve concerts. Several original Grateful Dead-related artworks are also on display.

Some Grateful Dead artifacts in the exhibit are part of the museum’s permanent collection, but curatorial director Howard Kramer said a major exhibition about the band has been on the drawing boards since before the museum opened, in 1995. “Back then the band didn’t want to be the sole focus an exhibit,” Kramer told msnbc.com. “And when we opened, it was a month after Jerry Garcia died. So the timing wasn’t right. Now enough time has passed to allow this to happen.”

Unlike many other Rock Hall exhibits which follow a band’s timeline, the Grateful Dead exhibit is based on themes. “Our exhibit on The Clash was broken down by each album they put out, but The Dead cannot be defined by albums,” said Kramer. “That wasn’t their milieu. Concerts were. So we take a non-linear view and look at elements that were constants within the band history,” with sections on the Grateful Dead as a recording group and a touring band, their fans, tapers and fellow travelers.

“Grateful Dead: The Long Strange Trip,” which runs through December 2012, includes many videos and listening stations. “Unlike the band, this exhibit will not travel. This is the only venue,” said Kramer. “So we hope Grateful Dead fans, notorious for their willingness to follow the band on the road, will make the trip to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland to experience the band in a different way.”

(My story: Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum welcomes Grateful Dead exhibit first appeared on msnbc.com”s Overhead Bin)

April 11, 2012
by Harriet Baskas
Comments Off on Titanic photos and artifacts

Titanic photos and artifacts

There are loads of stories and exhibits out there right now marking the 100th anniversary of Titanic’s sinking in the North Atlantic.

One I found interesting has to do with one of the very last photos of the ship, which was sold by the Vancouver Maritime Museum in British Columbia for under $5,000.

As reported by the Times Colonist, the photo was sold more than a decade ago because the museum needed cash.

“The yellowish-brown, postcard-sized picture was donated to the museum in 1968 by Mrs. R.H. Hooper of nearby Richmond, B.C., whose father Henry William Clarke was chief engineer in Southampton when he took the photo on April 10, 1912.
It languished in the museum’s archives for 30 years, when its value was belatedly discovered by then-executive-director James Delgado.”

Another intriguing Titanic story is posted on  O say can you seethe blog of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, which notes that the museum has some Titanic-related artifacts, including a life vest recovered by Carpathia passenger Dr. Frank Blackmarr, who helped Titanic survivors recover from exposure and hypothermia after they boarded the Carpathia early in the morning after the sinking. The life vest was donated to the Smithsonian by the Chicago Historical Society in 1982.

Titanic life vest, courtesy Smithsonian National Museum of American History


In her blog post, Julia Imbriaco, a program assistant in the museum’s Department of Education and Interpretation, also links to a podcast about the Titanic by the museum curator of Maritime History, Dr. Paul Johnston, to  museum artifacts related to the Titanic and to songs about the Titanic, 




March 25, 2012
by Harriet Baskas
Comments Off on Zillah’s historic Teapot Dome gas station on the move

Zillah’s historic Teapot Dome gas station on the move


Travel between Yakima and Sunnyside, Washington on Interstate 82 and you’ll come upon a turnout for the town of Zillah, home to a 15-foot-tall teapot complete with sheet metal handle and concrete spout.

It’s a classic 1920s bit of roadside architecture that for many years served up gas to motorists and a history lesson to everyone.

The story goes that Jack Ainsworth decided to build the teapot after a night of drinking moonshine and playing cards. Ainsworth and his buddies were appalled over the outcome of President Warren G. Harding’s decision a year earlier to transfer the control of naval oil reserves at Teapot Dome, Wyoming and Elk Hills, California from the Navy to the Department of the Interior.

It seems that the then Secretary of the Interior, Albert Fall, had leased those oil fields to two businessmen who had given him what ultimately were deemed to be illegal ‘loans.’

Investigations ensued, fines were paid, folks ended up in jail, and the oil fields reverted to government control in 1927.

Ainsworth built the Teapot Dome Gas Station to poke fun at the whole situation while the trials were underway and, until it ceased commercial operation in the early 1990s, the station was said to be one of the oldest functioning gas stations in the United States.

Even though it was boarded up and forlorn-looking on the edge of town, the teapot  had a spot  on the National Register of Historic Places.

Now it’s going to have a place of honor in Zillah’s tiny downtown.

The city of Zillah raised funds to purchase, re-locate and re-purpose the teapot as an information booth and last week, minus its spout and its shingles, the teapot was packed up and trucked into town.

When it is all put back together, repaired and refurbished, the Teapot Dome Gas Station, along with its old “Gas” sign and its outhouse, will sit next to the Civic Center in Zillah, WA.

Could there be any better excuse for a road trip?

March 20, 2012
by Harriet Baskas
Comments Off on Sneak Preview of LeMay-America’s Car Museum

Sneak Preview of LeMay-America’s Car Museum

LeMay America's Car Museum opening June 2nd

LeMay-America’s Car Museum is scheduled to open June 2, 20102 in Tacoma, Washington and media previews are underway.

The four-story, 165,000 square-foot shrine to America’s love affair with automobiles will display many significant cars from the collection of Harold LeMay, whose 3500-car collection was named the world’s largest car collection by the Guinness Book of World Records, as well as a half-dozen themed galleries that will display automotive treasures from around the world.

Here are a few photos of cars that caught my eye:

This car once belonged to the Fabulous Wailers, a Tacoma, Wa. band


March 18, 2012
by Harriet Baskas
Comments Off on Glass sea creatures at Harvard Museum of Natural History

Glass sea creatures at Harvard Museum of Natural History


The Harvard Museum of Natural History in Cambridge, Mass., displays 3,200 hand-crafted glass models of flowering plants created between 1886 and 1936 by German glass artists Leopold and Rudolph Blaschka.

Not on display are the university’s 430 Blaschka glass models of marine invertebrates, such as this glass model of a Portuguese man of war, which Harvard acquired in the late 19th century.

March 14, 2012
by Harriet Baskas
Comments Off on Happy Birthday, Mercator

Happy Birthday, Mercator

A new exhibition in the Maps Division of the New York Public Library, Mercator at 500 , is co-hosted by Tourism Flanders and honors the work of Gerardus Mercator, an historic geographer, engraver and maker of scientific instruments, maps and globes, on the 500th anniversary of his birth.

On display through September 29, 2012 are many cartographic works that have been stored away for decades.

According to the library:

Gerard Mercator (1512-1594), seated at left, is one of the best known of the Flemish and Netherlandish cartographers flourishing in the 16th and 17th centuries. Rooted in scientific instrument and globe making, he was the century’s foremost geographer, dubbed by his fellow mapmaker Abraham Ortelius as “the Ptolemy of our Age”.

In 1585, Mercator published the first of an ambitious three volume world atlas series, the most modern, scientifically verified atlas published in its time. His grandson would eventually sell the entire stock in 1604 to Jodocus Hondius (1563-1612), seated at right, a skilled engraver, map and globe maker.

This is the title page of the second edition of Mercator’s Ptolemaic atlas.

Images courtesy the New York Public Library

March 13, 2012
by Harriet Baskas
Comments Off on Hidden Museum Treasures – a book in progress

Hidden Museum Treasures – a book in progress

Matchbox diorama, with fleas. Courtesy the Indianapolis Children's Museum

While there are more than 15,000 museums in our country, visitors only get to see about 5 percent of any institution’s collections.

Most museums simply don’t have room to display everything they’ve got.

But there are a wide variety of other surprising and intriguing reasons why, for example, the Smithsonian Institution doesn’t display its collection of condoms, why the Field Museum locks up its shrunken heads and why the bones of a former slave named Fortune were hidden away for years in the basement of Connecticut’s Mattatuck Museum.

For years, I’ve been talking my way into the backrooms of museums to get the stories behind these hidden museum treasures.

Many of those stories have become entries in my regional travel books and others became radio pieces in my Hidden Treasures Radio Project that aired on National Public Radio.

That 26-part series included the stories of a quilt made of Ku Klux Klan masks, time-capsules at the Andy Warhol Museum,  the final resting place of the tombstones of Richard Hickock and Perry Smith – the two killers portrayed in Truman Capote’s book, In Cold Blood – and the odd things given to U.S. presidents and vice-presidents as gifts.

More recently, I gathered up the stories of hidden museum treasures for two slide shows that appeared on Bing Travel: Hidden Museum Treasures  and Hidden Treasures of Presidential Museums.

Now I’m working on putting these stories, and the stories behind many other hidden museum treasures, into a book to be published by the Globe Pequot Press in 2013.

Excerpts from that work in progress, and many other museum tidbits I find along the way, will show up here on the Museum Mysteries website.

Send me your nominations for hidden treasures to include in the book and, please, come along.