As any community booster will tell you, Columbus has some nice, respectable museums with thoughtful exhibits, significant historical relics and priceless works of art. These places are informative, important and serious. Some of them also can be, let's face it, kind of dull. Spending time in them can feel like you're trapped inside a middle school textbook.
But a trip to one of Central Ohio's offbeat smaller museums is an entirely different experience. Charming, unpretentious and quirky, the minor-league attractions cover a wide range of peculiar subjects, from "the oldest legal profession on earth" to early TV technology to the abolitionist who wrote the Christmas song "Up on the Housetop." They are personal, passionate and goofy. The atmosphere is accessible (no snob appeal, but free or cheap admission) and the settings are intimate and friendly. You feel less like you're visiting a repository of valuable objects than hanging out at the home of an enthusiastic, eccentric friend.
Sure, these places can be disorganized and amateurish. They don't host black-tie galas or wow folks with impressive touring exhibitions. But once you've been poked with an electrical hair stimulator, marveled at "America's most unusual traffic light" or gawked at 5,000 pieces of Bruce Lee memorabilia, another Chihuly show sounds less appealing than it used to.
Glass eyeballs in Groveport
Warren Motts's military museum started out in the basement of his Groveport home in 1989. More than two decades later, his collection includes more than 50,000 items-from World War II armored vehicles to Civil War dog tags-and attracts visitors from as far away as Great Britain, Serbia and Belgium. With impressive holdings such as a life mask of Abraham Lincoln, the Motts Military Museum, housed in its own 4,300-square-foot building since 1999, is historically significant and educational, covering the entire history of American military conflicts, from the colonial Indian Wars to Iraq and Afghanistan. But it's also personal and quirky, reflecting the unique mindset of its obsessive founder, Motts, who managed to turn a hobby collecting Battle of Gettysburg memorabilia into a one-of-a-kind attraction.
For instance, Motts, a former Ohio State hospital photographer, has a particular interest in battlefield medicine. "I have one of the nicest medical collections from the Civil War that there is," he says. Though "nice" isn't the first word that comes to mind after viewing his embalming equipment, amputee chain saw, blood transfusing apparatus, stomach pump and glass eyeballs. "The kids all love the glass eyeballs," Motts says.
Motts curated and researched every exhibit in the building, a former garden center in Groveport. He's gone to extraordinary lengths to obtain some of his items. He's negotiated with Iraqi officials to get an official photograph of Saddam Hussein, persuaded the demolition contractor of the Ohio Pen to donate bricks for a display on famous Confederate escapee Gen. John Hunt Morgan and secured a decommissioned World War II-era Higgins boat rescued from the bottom of Lake Erie. The museum is sobering, especially a collection of photos of the Buchenwald concentration camp. But it also is flat-out funny at times-in particular, a wedding dress made out of a parachute ("I think it looks nice," Motts says) and a bizarre painting of Nazi leader Hermann Goering posing with his baby daughter and a Christmas tree (the painting was "liberated" by an American soldier).
The best way to see the museum is on a tour led by Motts, whose good cheer, enthusiasm and attention to detail make him an ideal guide. But if he's not available, perhaps another relative can fill in. "My 4-year-old granddaughter is already giving tours," Motts says with a laugh.
Enter the dragon
The Bruce Lee Legends of Martial Art Hall of Fame traveled a convoluted path to end up in a tae kwon do school in the basement of a small Reynoldsburg strip mall. Joon Choi, a longtime Central Ohio martial arts instructor, owns the collection of Bruce Lee memorabilia-some 5,000 pieces, including rare photographs, movie posters, games and other trinkets-but he didn't assemble it. A former student named Robert Blakeman spent his life accumulating the collection, which he'd display during Choi's annual martial arts exhibition at the Arnold Classic.
Around five years ago, Choi inherited the collection after Blakeman and his partner Mickey Prince died (both from cancer). The pair banked that Choi would keep together the collection, believed to be one of the largest of its kind in the world, instead of selling the pieces on eBay. They were right. Choi paid off some $25,000 in debt that Blakeman owed at the time of his death and turned the collection (worth around $250,000, Choi estimates) into the Bruce Lee museum.
Today, the walls of Choi's martial arts school are covered with Lee memorabilia. The items can be a bit redundant (endless action snapshots of Lee), but you can find some interesting stuff, too. There's an amusing letter from Lee to a young fan, discouraging her from trying to break wooden boards with her hands. If she wants to break something, Lee writes, "use a hammer." And Choi says he owns one of the iconic yellow jumpsuits Lee wore in the movie Game of Death. But Choi is a kung fu teacher, not a historian-and organization and elaboration aren't his hall of fame's strong suit. When a visitor asks if he can see the famous outfit, Choi admits he doesn't know where it's at.
Land of the lost
Burning Tree Golf Course outside Newark offers something unique in the competitive Central Ohio golf market. In the basement below the clubhouse, owner Sherm Byers displays some 40 replicas of dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures. Jurassic Journey Museum commemorates the amazing discovery made at the golf course in December 1989. While digging a pond for the back nine holes of the course, a back-hoe operator found the bones of an ancient mastodon. Discover magazine declared the "Burning Tree Mastodon" one of the most significant scientific discoveries of the 1990s. Byers says the skeleton (preserved in a peat moss bog) is "the most complete mastodon ever found in history." The roughly 11,000-year-old bones included butchering marks, suggesting humans had killed the beast and preserved it in the bog for safekeeping. Scientists also found stomach contents of the animal's last meal, including live bacteria (the oldest ever discovered at the time).
The mastodon sparked in Byers an interest in prehistoric creatures. He formed a company to make cast replicas of the creature, as well as other ancient animals. In 1997, he displayed his replicas at the Ohio State Fair and continues to do several traveling shows annually. At his 3,000-square-foot museum at the golf course, exhibits include replicas of Tyrannosaurus rex, brontosaurus, stegosaurus, velociraptor and, of course, the mastodon that started it all. The original skeleton, however, is long gone. Byers sold it to a museum in Japan, reportedly for $600,000.
The oldest legal profession
Giving a tour of the Ed Jeffers Barber Museum, Mike Ippoliti pulls out a mysterious electronic rod and asks a visitor if he'd like to try it out. Warily, the visitor agrees and receives an unpleasant jolt as Ippoliti cackles Sweeney Todd-style. In the early to mid 20th century, barbers thought the "electrode" device stimulated hair growth, cleared up acne and moles, even helped cure hemorrhoids and "female problems," Ippoliti says. "People get a charge out of that-no pun intended," says Ippoliti, president of the Canal Winchester Area Historical Society.
Housed in the second floor of a former Knights of Pythias Lodge in downtown Canal Winchester, the barber Mecca is believed to be the only museum in the world solely dedicated to "the oldest legal profession on earth," as the museum's late founder, Jeffers, used to call it. It boasts 61 barber poles, a 400-volume library, 600 razors, 500 shaving mugs, several vintage spittoons, more than a dozen wooden chairs (including some that go back to the mid 18th century), swaths of hair belonging to Douglas MacArthur and Dwight Eisenhower and horrifying bloodletting and teeth-pulling tools from the era when barbers also dabbled in surgery and dentistry. Other highlights include a working, full-scale, two-chair barbershop, a room dedicated to the sister profession of cosmetology and the Barbering Hall of Fame, which includes Columbus barber/woodcarver Elijah Pierce and Jeffers, the longtime executive director of the Ohio State Barber Board. "This was his life," says Howard Warner, the board's current director.
Jeffers, known as the "Godfather of Barbering," ran the museum on his own for years. After he died in July 2006, it fell into the hands of the historical society. Managing the museum has been a learning experience for Ippoliti, a former WCOL radio deejay. Though he knew nothing about the barbering profession until 2007 ("my wife used to cut my hair for years," he says), Ippoliti is now an expert. He can quote arcane trivia about obscure barbering tools and products and once demonstrated on a human guinea pig how barbers used to singe hair with lighted wax tapers. Thankfully, he leaves the bloodletting razors alone.
Really neato stuff
City slickers be warned: One visit to Ohio's Small-Town Museum in Ashville and you might find yourself overcome with a sudden urge to give up the urban rat race. Nestled in the hamlet about 20 miles south of Columbus, the volunteer-run celebration of country living boasts a charming collection of oddities, tributes to local citizens, genuinely historic items and tongue-in-cheek exhibits such as Chic-Chic ("the world's smartest rooster") and Buster ("the dog that voted Republican"). The authors of New Roadside America named the museum one of their favorites in the country, filled with "really neato stuff."
History buffs might be impressed with the museum's 150-year-old, 17-star American flag and a buoy recovered from the wreckage of the Battleship Maine. But quirkier fare is the museum's calling card. You can squeeze a still-operational (and surprisingly loud) Model T Ford horn and learn about local lore and legends (Roy Rogers allegedly was fired from the town's now-closed canning factory for singing on the job). All celebrities remotely connected to the area are covered, including Buckeye touchdown machine Champ Henson, Wizard of Oz munchkin James Hulse, porn actor John Holmes (supposedly lived in Millport, just west of town) and MASH actress Sally Kellerman (she never lived in the area, but her great-grandfather helped found Ashville). One exhibit tells the story of a local guy who hung out with Elvis in the military, while another mentions a resident who befriended Billy Carter in the Marines (a can of "Billy Beer" is included in the display).
But what brings most people to the museum-and was featured on "Oprah" in the 1990s-is "America's most unusual traffic light." For more than 40 years, the light, which looks like a rocket ship from a 1950s sci-fi movie, directed traffic in town. The still-functioning device works like a radar screen, alternating between red and green, and residents claim no accidents occurred at its intersection. But the design didn't take into account colorblind drivers, so in the early 1980s, the state made the town replace it.
Slaves and Santa Claus
Hanby House in Westerville honors Benjamin Hanby, the composer and abolitionist whose family once lived in the two-story home. Hanby is best known for writing the Christmas song "Up on the Housetop" ("Up on the housetop reindeer pause/Out jumps good old Santa Claus"). In total, Hanby, an ordained minister, wrote 84 songs-some of which are still used in Methodist hymnals today-before dying in Chicago from tuberculosis at 33 in 1867. From an abolitionist family, Hanby wrote his second most famous song, the anti-slavery ballad "Darling Nellie Gray," while a student at Otterbein College. His family housed runaway slaves fleeing along the Underground Railroad. In the 1920s, the house was saved from demolition and donated to the Ohio Historical Society. The home includes furniture and personal items that belonged to Hanby and his family, including sheet music, books and a walnut desk that Hanby made. The Westerville Historical Society maintains and operates the museum under an agreement with the Ohio Historical Society.
The birth of the boob tube
A handy Columbus father-and-son team was among the first Ohioans to experiment with a new technology called television. Murray Mercier Sr. and his son, Murray Jr., a Central High School junior, crafted two crude sets in 1928. The receivers had poor picture quality, but they could pick up signals from stations as far away as Schenectady, New York, and Silver Spring, Maryland. The then-simple pre-camera-tube technology made it easy for the Merciers and other amateur tinkerers to build their own contraptions. "That was very common," says Steve McVoy, the founder of the Early Television Museum.
Today, the Merciers' pioneering sets-built nearly two decades before TV took off in the U.S.-are among the nearly 150 treasures on display at McVoy's museum, which traces the history of the medium as it grew from the "mechanical" sets built by the Merciers and other amateurs to the groundbreaking color receivers of the early 1950s. McVoy, who used to repair TVs as a teenager, started to collect old sets after selling his business, Coaxial Communications, nearly a decade ago. When his collection began to overwhelm his home-and tested the patience of his wife-he started the nonprofit museum in a renovated warehouse in Hilliard. McVoy says it's the only museum in the country that specializes in television exclusively. In addition to antique sets, McVoy's attraction includes old cameras and a 1948 mobile production van on loan from the Ohio Historical Society.
The giant ground sloth
Inside Orton Hall, the oldest building on the Ohio State campus, is the Orton Geological Museum, a fascinating collection of crystals, minerals, bones, fossils, mastodon teeth, meteorites and "Jeffrey," the skeleton of a 7-foot giant ground sloth (or "Megalonyx jeffersoni"). The extinct plant eater lived in Ohio during the Pleistocene epoch around 8,000 to 12,000 years ago. A farmer discovered the skeleton (about 30 percent complete) while digging a ditch in Holmes County in 1890. Other creatures featured in the museum include skeletal replicas of a 4-foot-long Tyrannosaurus skull and Dunkleosteus, a 20-foot-long carnivorous fish that lived about 380 million years ago. Plus, the tiny museum gift shop sells what might be the perfect gift for the hard-to-please science nerd in the family: a Charles Darwin bobblehead ($18.50).
Dave Ghose is an associate editor for Columbus Monthly.