What’s the 411 on Waltham’s telephone museum?
When you think of the Boston area, one of the first things that comes to mind is its history. There’s the Boston Tea Party, Paul Revere’s midnight ride, the Salem witch trials. But Vince Valentine would be quick to tell you that an important piece of history is missing from that picture.
After admiring and collecting phones from a young age, Valentine said he was inspired to open the state’s first telephone museum last fall.
“There’s a lot of history here in Boston, but I’ll tell you 90 percent of the people that come in here have no idea the phone was invented in Boston,” said Valentine, director and founder of the Telephone Museum in Waltham.
The walls of the museum at 289 Moody St. are lined with Valentine’s collection of telephones dating back to the late 19th century. He said he probably has around 300 on display, but the total inventory is closer to 1,000. The main attraction is a classic red British telephone box in the middle of the room.
The suburbs west of Boston have plenty of other museums that aren’t what you’d expect. Watertown, by coincidence, has one of the world’s only plumbing museums. Brookline is a home of the world-renowned Museum of Bad Art. And one of the country’s two stamp and postal museums can be found in Weston.
An electrical engineer by trade, Valentine started bringing his collection to area schools and doing after-school workshops. When he saw how popular his classes were with students of all ages, he decided to find a permanent location.
“The interest is there,” Valentine said. “And they’re completely fascinated by the rotary dial. They would look at me and they would say, ‘Is the rotary dial more complicated than an iPhone?’”
At the opposite end of the museum, Valentine has set up a long work bench where he hopes to teach an Introduction to Electricity class. He also plans to work with various scout troops to help them earn electricity badges.
“Our focus really is to get kids to understand this,” Valentine said. “The charter of the museum is to inspire kids to become engineers — electrical engineers.”
After all, the telephone only came about because of an inventor’s curiosity about the many uses of electricity.
A few days after obtaining a patent on March 7, 1876, Alexander Graham Bell transmitted the first intelligible message by telephone to his assistant: “Mr. Watson, come here, I need you.” He did most of his inventing at night while working days as a Boston University professor.
The Plumbing Museum was also born from a recreational collection. The Manoogs, a family of plumbers, started collecting antique toilets, tubs, and sinks in the 1950s. In 1979, Russell Manoog established the American Sanitary Plumbing Museum in Worcester to house the collection.
The museum was relocated to Watertown in 2007. It boasts a number of rare plumbing pieces, including a bathtub from the Civil War. There is even a display dedicated to vintage toilet tissue that dates to the early 20th century.
“Some of these tubs were used in the White House back in the day for the help,” said Sasha Parfenova, the museum’s coordinator. “We have an earth closet, which is one of the oldest toilets, and it’s all made out of wood. And we have about 50 or 40 years of plumbers’ journals, which are no longer published.”
The Museum of Bad Art was founded after Scott Wilson, an art and antiques dealer in Boston, found a painting leaning against a trash can. He had planned to throw it away until his friend Jerry Reilly stopped him, saying the painting was “so bad it’s good.”
From then on, Wilson, Reilly, and three of their friends kept their eyes out for any other “bad art,” which eventually led to the museum’s founding in 1993. This bad art can be seen at the museum’s three locations: the lobby of the Brookline Interactive Group, the basement of the Somerville Theatre in Davis Square, and the New England Wildlife Center in South Weymouth.
“We decided that our purpose was to collect, exhibit, and celebrate art that would never make it in a traditional museum,” said executive director Louise Reilly Sacco.
Sacco said the museum currently has about 700 pieces, but most of them are in storage while the rest are rotated through the three locations. She said the museum’s credibility has been questioned at times. Several people have argued with her that “there’s no such thing as bad art.”
“I have no patience for that,” she said. “If there’s no such thing as bad art, then there’s no such thing as good art. It’s legitimate to make judgments about what’s bad and what’s good.”
The Spellman Museum of Stamps & Postal History in Weston was also founded after a collection became too much to handle.
Whitman-born Cardinal Francis Spellman, the sixth archbishop of New York, was a renowned stamp collector. His collection continued to grow until he could no longer sustain it. He asked Sister Fidelma Conway to act as caretaker of the collection in 1938. The museum did not break ground until more than 20 years later, in 1961.
The museum’s collection is extensive, curator George Norton said. It features stamps from nearly every country in the world. One of the permanent exhibits features the penny black, the first adhesive postage stamp, which dates to the mid-19th century.
Norton explained that the majority of the museum’s collection is shown in rotating thematic exhibits.
“One of my favorite collections is of music on stamps,” he said. “Theodore Steinway, who was the head of Steinway Piano Co., collected all the stamps in the world that related to music, composers, instruments, the history of music, and donated them to the museum.”
Norton added that studying any specific item, whether it be a telephone, a bathtub, or a stamp, can be used to learn so much more about how the world has changed over time.
“I personally look at our collections and our activities not just as a stamp collecting hobby, but really as a window to the world,” Norton said. “You can really take any unusual object . . . in terms of using that as a focal point to explore the cultural and social aspects of the world.”
UNUSUAL MUSEUMS AT A GLANCE:
289 Moody St., Suite 111, Waltham
At the Telephone Museum, guests can see over 300 phones, some dating back to the 19th century.
80 Rosedale Rd., Watertown
The Plumbing Museum features antique bathtubs, commodes, and toilet tissue.
Museum of Bad Art
46 Tappan St., Brookline
The Museum of Bad Art’s stated aim is “to celebrate the labor of artists whose work would be displayed and appreciated in no other forum”.
Spellman Museum of Stamps and Postal History
241 Wellesley St., Weston
The Spellman Museum of Stamps & Postal History is dedicated to the appreciation of diversity through the medium of postage stamps and postal history.
Charles River Museum of Industry & Innovation
154 Moody St., Waltham
Located in the historic Francis Cabot Lowell Mill, the museum celebrates and explores the historical impact of industry on American culture.
Girl Scout Museum at Cedar Hill
265 Beaver St., Waltham
The museum features one of the largest collections of Girl Scout memorabilia in the country.