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Curious curations: David Whitley

The great museums may attract the hordes with their grand spectacles, but it’s the little ones, devoted to the bizarre, the mundane and the naff that are oddly inspiring

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In every lasting relationship, there’s a moment when you just know it’s meant to be. For me, that was when I took the woman who’s now my wife away for our first romantic weekend together.

On our last day in Liverpool, I sheepishly proposed a slight detour. She went with it — even when I told her why. In Southport, there’s a prime example of the sort of attraction I’ve a not-so-minor obsession with: a museum where the subject matter is so bizarrely niche that commercial viability is surely an impossibility. And of these charming institutions, the British Lawnmower Museum surely has an elevated position in the pantheon.

It’s a gloriously cluttered labour of love, with lawnmowers and other gardening equipment crammed into every little hidey-hole. Some are donated by celebrities — Joe Pasquale has handed over his strimmer, Brian May from Queen has thrown in a classic model — and you amble past them while a tape recording runs through the history of mowing lawns. This, of course, is something I’ve no interest in whatsoever. But the fact it exists for the half-dozen people in the world who might be interested cheers me greatly.

Occasionally, the fates combine to produce a ridiculously niche museum on a topic that does actually interest me. The Palais Mollard-Clary, in Vienna, therefore, is one of my favourite places: it contains two obscure institutions. Its Globe Museum isn’t something to cherish because it contains really good globes — it’s marvellous as it’s full of really bad, inaccurate globes made by well-meaning cartographers from previous centuries.

They didn’t have the satellite technology we have now, and large chunks of the globe hadn’t even been explored. The shape of Africa, therefore, is subjected to some tremendously flamboyant speculation. Other landmasses are misplaced by several hundred miles, California is often depicted as an island, and the gap where Australia should be offers a blank canvas for drawing whales and terrifying sea monsters.

On the ground floor is the Esperanto Museum: a thrilling spectacle, devoted to an invented language that no nation in the world recognises as a mother tongue. Esperanto’s story is one of wide-eyed hope — its proponents genuinely believed it could go global and usher in an era of world peace.

This didn’t come to pass. But on the plus side, there are few things more entertaining than learning grammatical suffixes of a useless language by playing a specially adapted Pac-Man game. That’s something the British Museum and the Louvre can’t compete with.

But such hijinks have inspired me to seek out the oddest museums in the world (the Icelandic Phallological Museum is near the top of the list, with its marvellous collection of animal members). But I also want to find the world’s least-appealing museum; one on a topic so dull no sentient being would surely ever wish to visit it. This quest took me to an suburb of Dortmund, in Germany’s industrial heartland.

I went there in search of the Deutsche Arbeitsschutzausstellung. Roughly translated, this means the ‘German Occupational Health and Safety Exhibition’. What could possibly be more tedious than health and safety regulations, rammed home with stereotypical German efficiency?

My excitement only increased as a portly man with a moustache officiously informed me I’d not be able to take my bottle of water inside. It was living up to all the magnificently miserable mental images I’d conjured up when I first learned of the place’s existence.

But then it let me down. I was heartbroken to find the German Occupational Health and Safety Exhibition is actually quite good. There are buttons to press, helicopter cockpits to sit in, clunking great bits of machinery to play with and clever robots to admire.

This wasn’t what I wanted. I wanted explanations of fire-drill strategies and mandatory rest breaks. I was enjoying myself and loathing every second of it.

Only at the end did I find the Holy Grail: a display on how to lift a box properly. The spirit of the inexplicably niche museums I love so much had finally been evoked.

 

Published in Nov/Dec 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)