Shrunken Heads, Lead Feet and Bootjacks: 13 Oddities from the Archives of Memphis Museums
Venture into the vaults of several Memphis Museums and check out these oddities that live in the archives, but aren’t on display:
1. Motorcycle, Pink Palace Museum
This majestic1969 Harley Davidson was donated to the Pink Palace by a man named Memphis Red, who was in one of Memphis’ first African American motorcycle clubs.
2. “Amputee”, National Ornamental Metal Museum
This three-toed lead foot by Phil Endicott is part of the National Ornamental Metal Museum’s permanent collection.
3. The Monkey Conductor, Dixon Gallery and Gardens
This small porcelain monkey was made in the mid-1700s by a German sculptor named Missen. He’s the conductor of a larger monkey orchestra that was made to satirize the Dresden Court Orchestra. Fun fact: his fangs are tiny, but they’re really sharp.
4. Fake shrunken head, Pink Palace Museum
The Pink Palace has a real shrunken head on permanent display, but they’ve got a fake one in their archives. The fake is made of goat skin, with human hair added to make it more convincing. According to the card stored with the fake head, “Many travelers in the 1930s were predisposed to belive that all South American Indians were head hunters.”
5. Picture frame, Pink Palace Museum
Normally, the Pink Palace only collects historical and natural artifacts from the Memphis area, but registrar Tammy Braithwaite told me that they couldn’t resist keeping this intricate piece of hobo art. The donor thought the piece had been made by a prisoner in Mississippi in the 1800s, but that story isn’t likely true. The Pink Palace’s research has found that is more likely a piece of art created by a transient in the 1920s-1930s, especially since a prisoner probably wouldn’t have been allowed to use a carving knife.
6. Clown head, Childrens Museum of Memphis
I have no idea what these clown heads were originally designed for, but there are two of them hiding in the CMOM storage building.
7. Leather vest, Stax Museum of American Soul Music
This patriotic fringed leather vest was worn by Larry Dodson, lead singer of the Bar-Kays, on the cover of “Do You See What I See“.
8. Undertaker’s Basket, Pink Palace Museum
This lined wicker basket lives on the third story in the Pink Palace’s archives, next to a soapbox derby car. It’s an undertaker’s basket, designed to carry the deceased from the family home (because before the proliferation of hospitals, most people died at home) to the funeral home.
9. Ripley Cotton Choppers 78, acetate and handwritten lyrics, Sun Studio
The original acetate of the Ripley Cotton Choppers single “Blues Waltz” is on display at Sun Studio, along with a 78 record and the handwritten lyrics (which look like they may have been penned by a fourthgrader). Only a very limited number of the singles were pressed, as the band wasn’t very popular, making these incredibly valuable.
10. Bird collection, Pink Palace Museum
In the late 19th century, a scientist named Boshart taxidermied and cataloged an extensive collection of North American Birds. The collection was given to the Pink Palace in the 1930s, and while a few pieces are on display in the galleries, the whole collection could be it’s own museum. It takes up nine eight-foot tall cabinets and several drawers in the museum archives and contains roughly 1,000 birds.
11. Flamingo, Pink Palace Museum
Speaking of birds, the Pink Palace also has this flamingo in its treasure trove of taxidermy. There’s nothing odd about it other than the display sign, which reads: “The museum wanted a flamingo, so L.P. Wulff collected one in Haiti in 1950. As Hatian law prevented him from shipping the bird home, Wulff cut his vacation short and brought the bird back on the plane.”
12. Hair Wreath, Woodruff-Fontaine House Museum
The Woodruff-Fontaine house has this intricate decorative wreath made of human hair. Victorians often created hair wreaths to memorialize dead loved ones.
13. Abe Plough’s Still, Pink Palace Museum
This massive copper still belonged to Memphis chemist Abe Plough, who used it to create manufacture medicines. According to the card, these medicines were “distilled from plant materials”. The card doesn’t get any more specific about exactly what types of medicine was being made, but you’ve got imaginations.
Ed. note: Thank you so much to the awesome museum curators and registrars at Sun, Stax, the Children’s Museum, the Pink Palace, the Dixon and Victorian Village for your help with this story.