When the ladyfriend asked me out on a date recently and hinted we’d be heading toward the Inner Harbor on our bicycles, I jokingly asked if she was taking me to Ripley’s Believe It or Not. Turns out I was dead right, so there I was, spending my Friday night taking in the exhibits at the Odditorium with the few tourists who somehow managed to tear themselves away from the free show down by the water to pony up the $22.99-$25.99 to see a motley collection of “art” and “artifacts.” “For 10 bucks more you could get into the aquarium,” I thought to myself, and then quickly moved to, “Good lord, shit’s expensive down here.”
But there we were, and I’ve got $50 for a romantic evening among the shrunken heads and Hogwarts model made out of matchsticks, so I slipped the teenager behind the counter my credit card and took our tickets to the Odditorium and Mirror Maze, minus the optional 3-D glasses, commemorative book, and ticket to the 4-D theater that would have added an additional $20 to the bill.
This was not my first visit to a Ripley’s Believe It or Not. I have vague memories of one on the Oregon coast from my childhood, and then there was the one in Niagara Falls that my big brother took me to in one of our rare travels together, back in the early aughts. He took me out to dinner at Ruby Tuesday and then bought me a ticket to the Ripley’s and it was awesome, mostly because my big brother, the one who teased me so mercilessly growing up, was hanging out with me. From both of these early trips I had a certain sense that these places were for tourists and a vague sense that I was in for a display of colonial booty presented in that “wow! those people are so weird!” way. The ladyfriend knows I “enjoy” both of those things, so this was totally a hot date.
Most museums have their exhibits in some kind of logical order, collected by theme or time period or something that makes some kind of sense. Ripley’s shall not be held to such pedestrian organizational schemes. We started in a room that featured reproductions of the Crown Jewels, tiny carvings done on the head of a toothpick that could only be seen with the provided magnifying glass, and a wall of swords. There might have also been a replica of a basketball game and its audience in the stands made entirely of carpenter ants, but I’m not sure. In other words, the romance game was big, and she grabbed my hand as we moseyed over to the wax figure of Ripley himself and one of the many displays about what a Great Explorer he was, interested in anything weird. It became clear pretty quickly that “weird” mostly meant bodies that don't look like bodies you see on TV (think really big or small, really short or tall, or even just with really long fingernails), anything from Africa or Asia, and art made from stuff that’s not paint, plaster, or other supplies you'd find in the art cabinet of an elementary school.
That last one provided the best stuff at the museum. There were the portraits of Bill and Hilary Clinton, made entirely of grease from fast-food hamburgers; the still life composed not of pen and ink, but of repeated stamps from one of those old school-library due-date stamps; the painting made not of paint but of the ground bodies of fire ants; the replica of a Sistine Chapel painting done in dryer lint; the city, made up entirely of famous skyscrapers from around the globe, sculpted with toothpicks. And I could go on and on and on. I mean, this is art of the highest lowest degree, and the BMA’s certainly not going to host it, and AVAM doesn’t have room for all of it, so I guess we can all be grateful Ripley’s has graced us with this weird collection of folk art.
The other stuff, well, I thought freak shows were kind of out of business, unless the freaks were in charge of the show. The Odditorium had some sense of that, but telling us that Ripley thought the one-armed wallpaper hanger was a truly amazing man didn’t quite remove the ick factor, which reached its zenith with the Johnny Eck exhibit. Eck was born in Baltimore, one of a pair of fraternal twins. He was born with sacral agenesis, a condition where his legs and feet never developed. He was featured in the film “Freaks” and made his living doing sideshows. Ripley called him the “most remarkable man alive,” and the Odditorium highlights Eck’s career as a magic act, but also an artist. Eck was prolific in Baltimore's painted screen scene, and MICA's exhibit of his work earlier this year was proof that he could be treated respectfully as a whole man, but that isn't quite Ripley's perspective.
There’s an exhibitionism in the exhibit, and one could argue that it was the freak show that allowed Johnny Eck and people like him to earn a living, that Eck was in many ways in charge of his own career. And certainly, at the same time, Ripley’s is still making money off getting us to pay to stare at him, and there’s something creepy about it.
There’s nothing complicated about the “anthropology” of the place, though. The “believe-it-or-not” part of Ripley’s makes other cultures into a de facto freak show, and for the ever-so-slightly conscious visitor, it’s seriously uncomfortable. Fortunately our tickets included entry to the Mirror Maze, and it was seriously trippy. I got lost, I bumped into mirrors, and I’m guessing the ladyfriend and I weren’t the first people to make out in there . . . believe it or NOT. We made our way out, got ice cream, and headed up to Federal Hill to stare at the city and cop a feel, and somehow the ick factor of the ol’ colonial bullshit faded away. Funny how that works sometimes.