Sunday, April 18, 2010

Museum of Appalachia - Perpetual Motion Machine

A Review by Roadside America

To be frank, we expected the Museum of Appalachia to be dull. Another "rural life" museum; quilts and baskets and millstones. Yawn.

Happily, our expectations were far too low. The Museum is a satisfying surprise -- a credit to its creator, John Rice Irwin, who understands that an historical attraction needs exhibits with a little pizzazz.

This place indeed does have plenty of saw blades, oxen yokes, and even an obligatory moonshine still. But it also has a giant wood burl shaped like the devil's head; a postman's coat made out of a bear; a display of mysterious feather balls found in the pillows of the dead; a mocking "Monkey Town" Tennessee license plate, issued during the 1925 trial of a local schoolmaster for teaching evolution.

And these are just in the first building.

The seemingly endless supply of oddities can be partly attributed to Irwin, who enlivens otherwise undistinguished items with their back stories. He does this with often lengthy explanatory signs -- a Herculean task, given that the Museum of Appalachia has over a quarter-million exhibits. For example, the birthing forceps of Dr. John Moore somehow become interesting when you read that he died while trying to steal an egg. An old grandfather clock is labeled as possibly being owned by a witch; a wooden church pew -- "The Murder Bench" -- has a stain from the victim of a hillbilly feud who bled to death on it; a Civil War rifle ball is "The Bitten Bullet," with human teeth marks "certified by a dentist who examined it." One exhibit, simply titled "And What Might This Be?," turns out to have been a stack of hundreds of half-rotted drug store prescriptions from 1940s.

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