I go to the Houston Museum of Natural Science every year for my birthday, as it affords me a chance to actually experience the exhibits without having a small child tug my arm and demand we go through the butterfly garden for the millionth time. The Cockrell Butterfly Center is lovely, mind you, but some of us would like to see other things occasionally.
I was especially interested this year because a friend of mine said that the gift shop had been “gothed up,” and that sort of thing gets my attention. Not that you have any choice if you park in the garage, but that description made the gift shop my first stop.
It turns out it’s the same old gift shop with one notable new exception: a tie-in side store for the "Cabinet of Curiosities" exhibit on the second floor. Honestly, it’s better than the actual exhibit.
Don’t get me wrong; I’ve never seen a stuffed crocodile glued upside-down to the ceiling before. Ditto a severed giraffe’s neck and head in skeleton form. I’m happy as a clam to cross those off my list. For all intents and purposes, though, the Cabinet of Curiosities exhibit is more properly titled Dead Animals and Parts of Dead Animals (And Maybe an Old-School Diving Helmet). It’s neat, but I’ve seen more curious curiosities in Bret and Rachel Harmeyer’s living room. It’s just not worth the price of admission.
The gift shop tie-in, though? I actually spent a half an hour enthralled. Look at some of this stuff!
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Granted, it’s no Wilde Collection, but it still far better manages to capture the Victorian curiosity mind-set. There’s a prominent preoccupation with death and mortality expressed through the many skull motifs. There’s also a much more scientific bent than with the exhibit. They have turtles in jars, beakers and stuff like that. There is a real feeling that the objects scattered around for sale have meaning because they are unusual. They embody, well, curiosity.
The exhibit tries, I’ll grant you. It’s got to be one of the only exhibits I’ve ever been in where I was encouraged to open drawers and look inside; having been a museum-goer since I was a child, the feeling of touching anything in a museum was strangely decadent. Pity what was inside was mostly shells and snakeskins. I find weirder things than that walking my daughter to school.
The shop also embodies the concept of the curiosity shop in another way: It’s shamelessly capitalistic. I think that matters. The Victorians very much had the idea that everything had a price, even death and the lives of exotic animals and people. A true cabinet of curiosities would assign a dollar value to everything, from the corpse of an extinct creature to the sacred jewelry of a faraway tribe.
It’s still very mainstream, mind you. And expensive. I really wanted the fairy encased in amber, but it’s not coming home with me on a writer’s paycheck. For a true experience in this regard, Wilde Collection is still your best bet, but if you’re visiting the museum anyway, pop into this odd little corner. It’s indeed gothic AF and full of odd wonders.