For half a century, my friend Loren Coleman has been obsessed with unusual animals, many of which may not exist at all. Loren is a cryptozoologist. He studies hidden and unknown animals, and the mythology, urban legends, folklore, and culture surrounding them. Sure, Bigfoot, Yeti, and Nessie are the big names, but there are countless others — the Jersey Devil, the Thunderbird, the Mothman, to name just a few. Loren has written more than a dozen books on the subject and posts daily at the Cryptomundo blog, all from a firmly Fortean perspective. Does he actually "believe" in Sasquatch or sea monsters? No, because belief, he has said, "belongs in the providence of religion." He just tries to keep an open mind in order to accept or deny evidence based on examination and investigation.
Over the years, Loren has amassed an astounding collection of cryptozoology curiosities, artifacts, and oddities, from toys, beer cans, and t-shirts emblazoned with one cryptid or another to scientific specimens, plaster casts, and movie props. His collection, called the International Cryptozoology Museum, has been housed in part of his Portland, Maine home and viewable only by appointment only. (Two years ago, he gave BBtv a tour.) But all the while, Loren has dreamt of opening up his wunderkammer to the public. Last month, he finally made that happen. The International Cryptozoology Museum opened in a permanent space in downtown Portland, Maine, sharing space with a fantastically-fringe bookstore Green Hand Books. It has regular hours and admission is just $5. Loren answered my questions in between giving the steady stream of visitors personal tours of the collection.
More photos and interview after the jump!
Congratulations, buddy! You've been working towards the opening of a public museum for decades. Why is it so important to you?
March 2010 marks my 50th year anniversary of actively pursuing cryptozoological subjects, through doing fieldwork, going on expeditions, working on archival/library research, writing books, blogs, and articles, and appearing in documentaries, on television programs, and on radio shows. It also signals five decades of collecting original cryptozoology items, copies of cryptid casts, expedition artifacts, various forms of other evidence, popular cultural items, tourist souvenirs, cryptid sculptures, original cz art, plus written material, books, and photographs on this subject.
I learned in this field, early on, that people come and go, and other people specialized, usually in Bigfoot only, at the exclusive of other cryptids. Nevertheless, I remained focussed on preserving the history of the general field, holistically, comprehensively, and globally. The human element has been as important, sometimes as the cryptids, to me. The hunters, seekers, and searchers, as well as the artists, writers, and "experts," have their own history to add to the story. Therefore, I tried to buy, gather, collect, and receive items, papers, and books out of respect to the work that people who have pursued these unknowns, these as yet to be discovered species, deserved.
With limited resources, passion, and forward movement, with the stories of research archives destroyed, lost, and stolen being difficult to hear, I collected and collected.
Several years ago, I decided that the next major phase of my cryptozoological life would be creating a museum for these materials. I first decided to do this as an elaborate cabinet-of-curiosities museum in my home, six years ago. Researchers, television producers, filmmakers, and some members of the general public found it. But having anything in your home, especially with my rising popularity, causes some tension with the personal and private parts of your life. The eventual goal, to go public outside my home, was always there. But I had to start somewhere.
Why is it so important? I feel cryptozoology, as a science, is significant to the history of zoology, and I wanted to attempt to be a focal point where people would know that items of historical value could be preserved. While a few Bigfoot museums exist on the West Coast, no one had provided a scientific, educational, and preservation resource just for cryptozoology. Since I had the advantage of gathering so much for so many years, it seemed a natural outgrowth of my appreciation for this field and its researchers.
I needed to go public to extend that educational mission, and assist in the reduction of the fiscal burden of having a static collection of such volume.
What's your vision for the Museum?
In the International Cryptozoology Museum brochure, I have placed the official mission statement. Here it is:
Cryptozoology is the study of hidden or unknown animals. These are usually larger zoological species that, to-date, remain unverified by science, such as Yetis, Bigfoot, Lake Monsters, and Sea Serpents, as well as hundreds of other yet-to-be-found animals (cryptids) worldwide, but which compelling ethnoknown evidence has been collected for their possible existence. It also encompasses the study of animals of recent discovery, such as the coelacanth, okapi, megamouth shark, giant panda, and mountain gorilla.
The International Cryptozoology Museum™ has as its primary mission to educate, inform, and share cryptozoological evidence, artifacs, replicas, and popular cultural items with the general public, media, students, scholars, and cryptozoologists from around the world.
This museum is the result of five decades of field research, travel, and dedication to gathering representative materials, native art, footcasts, hair samples, models, and other cryptozoological samples. Its director, Loren Coleman has moved his cabinet-of-curiosities collection featured on various cable programs on History, Travel, Animal Planet, SciFi, CNN, Fox, Discovery, ABC, NBC, CBS, BBC, CBC, and Boing Boing TV channels to downtown Portland, Maine. He and a dedicated battery of volunteers have opened the museum to the public on November 1, 2009, the world's first cryptozoology museum.
Realizing that cryptozoology is a "gateway science" for many young people's future interest in biology, zoology, wildlife studies, paleoanthropology, paleontology, anthropology, ecology, marine sciences, and conservation, the museum will fill a needed educational, scientific, and natural history niche in learning.
You built it and the crowds have been coming. What's the big attraction?
The attraction appears to be on many levels. Cryptozoology, in general, is very popular.
I am extremely visible in various media, via my books, my Cryptomundo blog postings, and my appearances on currently running and reruns of television programs ("MonsterQuest," "Lost Tapes," "In Search Of," "Weird Travels," and individual documentary television special interviews).
The International Cryptozoology Museum is the first and only museum of its kind in the world.
The museum's unique collection has writers talking about their own personal favorites, such as the Crookston Bigfoot, the P.T. Barnum FeeJee Mermaid, the Furbearing Trout, the Civil War Thunderbird, and other specific items, thus making the articles "personal." As opposed to the media treatments just being about Bigfoot, the diversity, fun, artistic variety of cryptozoology, the authentic and the fakes, the factual and the awful, are part of it, without judgement, as learning tools. For the media, it's a positive story, with a happy ending, about a topic you do not see covered everyday.
Portland, Maine's thriving art community within its rebounding Arts District is a center of some attention and great support in Maine and among artists. The museum sits at the edge of the Arts District, two blocks from the Portland Museum of Art and Children's Museum, next to Longfellow Square, which supports bookstores, cafes, and performing arts centers. It is a thriving, Bohemian, creative location that is exploding with new energy.
The museum opened in conjunction with Strange Maine Gazette newsletter editor and Strange Maine blogger Michelle Souliere's dream of having her own new business, a bookstore. This happened at the front of this location, and she invited me into the space, to share her rent. It was the right opportunity at the right time, and the media has loved this part of the story too. Michelle named it the Green Hand Bookshop, and she specializes in supernatural fiction, mysteries, Fortean books, pulp fiction from the 1930s-1950s, colorful paperbacks for the 1950s-1970s, and related material.
So far, what is the most popular piece on display?
The Crookston Bigfoot, created by Wisconsin taxidermist-artist Curtis Christensen in 1990, is by far the most popular piece that is part of the museum. It is located right inside the front door to the bookstore, serves as the first attraction in the museum, and everyone comes in to look at it, take their photos with it behind them, or just stare at it. The left front store window is the museum's, has a display in it, and the Bigfoot is sitting right behind that.
At the back of the Green Hand Bookshop is the ICM, so people have to walk through the bookstore, pay their five dollars, and then enter the back hallway and room that is the jam-packed museum.
The Bigfoot pulls many people into the bookstore who never even come into the museum, but, well, I guess that's my gift to the world. The Bigfoot gets everyone smiling and thinking. I like that. Some people take it seriously, some folks laugh and don't. That's okay. It gets a reaction that provokes thought, no matter what.
The Bigfoot itself is enormous, being 8 feet tall (8.5 tall with the stand) and about 400 pounds. It is a beautiful piece of taxidermy sculpture.
Were there any pieces that you just couldn't bear to let leave your house?
This museum is a beginning. I would like more room someday, but I had to start out smaller than desired to see if I can make the rent and expenses. I have kept the admission price at the lowest possible amount, five dollars for all ages, no discounts. One-year, five-year, and lifetime memberships are available. These first few year's prices are low so no one would feel mislead by the collection's size, which actually has multiple layers of exhibitions in 500 square feet, with two display cases in the middle of the room, shelves all around, items up front and in the hall, and more. For example, there are 15 ft ceilings in the space and the 11 ft long Fox-TV "Freakly Links Thunderbird" is displayed from on high. On another wall is the almost six foot long lifesize coelacanth.
Also, although I have some wonderful docents, headed by Jeff Meuse, my coordinator, and his wife Jessica, I am the only one who knows the collection, thoroughly, so I am conducting all the tours. I'm hoping to bring some of the volunteers up to speed in 2010, for I have talks to give and more documentary appearances to make. For example, I'm giving a keynote on "Bigfoot in Film" late in January 2010, and delivering a talk at a Mystery Cats Conference in Glasgow, Scotland, in March, then going on to Loch Ness.
Did I leave any pieces in my home that need to be in a future museum? Well, in a roundabout way, yes: My 40,000 volume cryptozoology library, which I would like to make part of a larger museum someday.
I would configure the museum differently, also, if I had more space for more display cases that would allow me to exhibit smaller, more valuable figurines I do not have now displayed due to the possible loss of them.
But, in general, I'm very happy with what I have been able to share with the general public in this initial offering. Also, I plan to rotate new exhibitions in, all the time, and actually change around an entire shelf subsection once every three months or so, to keep displays alive, so to speak.
What's your favorite piece in the collection?
My favorite piece, other than the sentiment value I attach to specific items that were gifted to me by my sons, is the original flag from the 1960 World Book expedition headed by Sir Edmund Hillary and Marlin Perkins, who were allegedly in search of the Abominable Snowman. (They were also spying on Tibet, but that's another story, altogether.) This flag, one of the first items I ever collected, parallels my entry into the field in 1960, and that the first cryptids that aroused my questions, curiosity, and interest were the Yetis.
Is there a particular artifact out there that you've always wanted to display but haven't been able to acquire?
I feel that within the present cultural milieu of what is recognized as significant in the history of cryptozoology and what I know is still out there someplace, I would like to obtain the Minnesota Iceman for the museum. Even though I understand it is a fake or copied model, I would be delighted with it. It has gone on and off the market for over $10,000 in the past, and I have always wanted to acquire it for my collection.
Bates College Museum of Art attempted to merely rent it for the 2006 Cryptozoology traveling exhibition curated by Mark Bessire and Rachael Smith, but I understood there were issues with transportation and insurance costs being much too high. I certainly know it would be a great centerpiece for the future expanded ICM, and that would be my reachable dream.
Bigfoot in a museum would be the great, but probably unattainable, Holy Grail.