What makes a piece of art important? Who gets to decide? Is beauty really in the eye of the beholder, or can we all agree that a bedazzled, childlike painting called “Juggling Dog in Hula Skirt” is no one’s idea of a masterpiece?
Those are the deep thoughts that drive the Museum of Bad Art, an institution that celebrates a phenomenon nearly as old as museums themselves: art that scrambles our concept of what belongs in a museum.
The museum operates in three locations — in Somerville, Brookline, and South Weymouth — but in a dead-end basement wing of the Somerville Theatre, the Museum Of Bad Art is dedicated to paintings that even the most forgiving among us might classify as awful. Self-portraits with blue complexions. Scale-defying landscapes. Still lifes with urine jars.
The museum’s tagline says it all: “Art Too Bad to Be Ignored.”
We like to think we go to museums and galleries to be edified, to remind ourselves about the glorious potential for human creativity and ingenuity. But we also go for the perverse pleasure of questioning authority. Basically: “Wow, who thought this was a good idea?”
Take, for example, the archaic medical device on display at the Public Health Museum in Tewksbury: a box filled with small, spring-loaded lancets once used for bloodletting. It also displays various restraints that were placed on mental health patients in less enlightened times, an old foot-powered dentist’s drill, and something ominously called the Hypospray Jet Injector, which was apparently used for smallpox vaccinations.
The venerable Wenham Museum, which will mark its 100th anniversary in 2023, began as the repository for the Elizabeth Richards Horton International Doll Collection, named for a former resident of the Claflin-Gerrish-Richards House, now a historic home preserved as part of the museum. The diva of the doll collection is Miss Columbia, “the doll who traveled around the world” by herself for two years beginning in 1900 on a fund-raising expedition for children’s charities.
The museum also specializes in collections of model trains and toys, including board games, blocks, paper dolls, and other historic playthings.
There was a time when everyone in America wore hats: fedoras or straw boaters for men, bonnets for women. There was also a time when workers at the Merrimac Hat Corp., in Amesbury, produced more hats than any other place in the country. The Amesbury Hat Museum, open by appointment, tips a cap to a bygone era, with shelves full to the brim with beaver hats and Girl Scouts caps, and even an original Mouseketeers beanie.
There are plenty of funny hats in the New England Pirate Museum, one of the various thematic tourist haunts that have invaded Salem over the years. The museum, open April to November, features a roomful of real pirate treasures and a walking tour to a pirate ship and an 80-foot cave. The Pirate Museum is part of a network of attractions in the Witch City that include the Witch Dungeon Museum and the Witch History Museum.
In Haverhill, the Museum of Printingpays tribute to the graphic arts and the history of typesetting, from vintage letterpress to the earliest word processors. The museum also houses a library of more than 7,000 books on the subject, accumulated over a lifetime by “professor emeritus” Frank Romano.
One of the oddest and most rewarding sightseeing excursions on the North Shore would have to be the Paper House, in Rockport. Begun in 1922 as a hobby for Elis F. Stenman, the summer home has a wood frame, but its walls and floors – and even the furniture – are all made of pressed or rolled newspaper. Stenman’s obsession might make a bit more sense when you learn that he was a mechanical engineer who invented a machine that produced – wait for it – paper clips. In an interview posted on the Paper House’s website, Stenman’s grandniece notes that the most commonly asked question about the house “is just, ‘Why?’ ”
Which leads us back to the Museum of Bad Art. Why paint when your clumsy brushwork would make an average kindergartner blush? Why does that pug look like it’s wearing Hannibal Lecter’s mask? Why, as several of the artists on display have done, would you submit your own work to the Museum of Bad Art?
“We want to celebrate these works,” says Louise Reilly Sacco, the museum’s permanent acting interim executive director. “We don’t want them to end up destroyed.”
Which is, after all, pretty much the reason we build any kind of museum.James Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.