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February 7, 2011
Volume 89, Number 6
p. 48

A Historical Tribute To The Unhistoric

826DC/Museum of Unnatural History
Storefront: The Museum of Unnatural History.
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826DC/Museum of Unnatural History
Gift-shop goodies: Unicorn tears, two-ply journal, emotional wood.

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Science enthusiasts have long enjoyed traveling to our nation’s capital to visit the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History. There, patrons can marvel at the splendor of the Hope Diamond and wonder in amazement at the skeletons that line Dinosaur Hall. Taken together, the museum’s exhibits are breathtaking and awe-inspiring. But they also bring to light one of the Smithsonian’s crucial shortcomings: namely, its unabashed bias toward the real and historically accurate.

Thankfully for museumgoers who prefer the fantastic and whimsical, there’s now an alternative: the MUSEUM OF UNNATURAL HISTORY. Located in Washington, D.C., the museum, which opened in October of last year, serves as the gift-shop façade of 826DC, a creative-writing center for children age six through 18. The center is a chapter of the nonprofit 826 National, which was cofounded by best-selling author Dave Eggers (“A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius”) and has the mission to improve the writing ability of children through programs such as workshops and after-school tutoring.

Each of the eight 826 National chapters features a unique storefront whose proceeds support the nonprofit’s mission. At 826michigan, in Ann Arbor, the Liberty Street Robot Supply & Repair Store sells items such as loofahs and cough syrup that have been specially designed for automatons. At 826 Valencia, in San Francisco, the Pirate Supply Store sells the medicine Scurvy Begone as well as the two-in-one product Mermaid Bait or Repellant: “Sprinkle a small amount of this substance into the sea. Sometimes they come closer, sometimes they swim away. It’s complicated,” the store’s website says.

Inspired by what 826DC Executive Director Joe Callahan says are “the historical societies and natural history museums that were created by 18th- and 19th-century explorers who traversed the globe and brought back strange curiosities to their home countries,” the Museum of Unnatural History offers its own unique sales items. Store visitors can purchase a bottle of Unfiltered Unicorn Tears, which comes with the label “Puts the sparkle in suffering.” There’s also the Field Journal, a roll of toilet paper that doubles as writing paper. Its tagline reads, “For when you have to go write now.”

Other items at the store include a line of Unnaturalist Supplements that can be taken to support the development of such things as fangs, opposable thumbs, and bipedalism; Sabertooth Dental Floss, “for extracting mastodon meat from those hard-to-reach places”; and Wood (In Personal Crisis). “For a while people only wanted petrified wood. But we sell it all: Disaffected Wood, Confused Wood, even Existentially Distraught Wood,” Eggers explained in the Jan. 23 issue of Washington Post Magazine.

Like its products, the store has a fun and playful atmosphere. A “take a bone, leave a bone” tray rests next to the cash register. In a corner of the store sits a cave that has been blocked off because of an “excavation in progress.” And an Alternative Mammal Assembly Kiosk invites patrons to build their own animals.

“Our exhibitions and installations are designed for the viewer to ask questions,” Callahan tells Newscripts. “We want the kids who come through to ask how they can become a biologist or an archaeologist. We want them to ask how to excavate a cave or how to collect insects. We want them to become inspired by and curious about the world around them.”

Those interested in becoming inspired can visit the Museum of Unnatural History, which is open daily from noon to 6 PM.

Jeff Huber wrote this week's column. Please send comments and suggestions to newscripts@acs.org.

Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
Copyright © 2011 American Chemical Society
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