Curation of laughter and mustard

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Calatrava's Milwaukee Art Museum

I wanted to do a post about the most beautiful museums in the world…but you already know about the Louvre. And Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain. And maybe even the Milwaukee Art Museum, the incredible bird-wing/ship-mast addition designed by Santiago Calatrava. (No? Well, I’ll put in a photo just in case you haven’t heard of it. And so my architect dad will be happy).

But then I realized I’d be doing the theme of curation a disfavor. After all, art museums aren’t the only museums in the world. With just a quick google search, you can find a museum for just about anything.

The macabre is well-represented in the world of museums. For instance, Guanajuato has an entire museum devoted to mummies. You can walk through halls of mummified bodies, 111 in all, in various states of decay. I’m sure the curator had fun with this one (“should we arrange by date exhumed or by state of decay?”). And there’s the Museum of Death in Hollywood that features artwork done by serial killers and videos of autopsies, among other things. What better place for a museum of death than a place obsessed with eternal youth? Amsterdam has a Torture Museum, but it’s not the only place. There are torture museums in Prague, Italy, Germany, and even friendly ol’ Wisconsin Dells, a place better known for its water park.

Just go to Wisconsin, lady!

But if you’re only in Wisconsin for one day and have to choose which museum to visit, why not skip the torture and the art housed under Calatrava’s wings and head to the National Mustard Museum, formerly known as Mount Horeb Mustard Museum. My Wisconsinite boyfriend tells me there was much controversy when the world’s only mustard museum relocated from one tiny Wisconsin town to another. What does Mount Horeb have to offer the world now? Perhaps just find another beloved and questionable food group…don’t pick Spam though, because we Minnesotans have the market cornered on Spam museums.

Minnesota does have its own share of odd museums. We even made a blogger’s list of “7 crazy-ass museums” with the Museum of Questionable Medical Devices, aka the Quackery Hall of Fame (on every list of ridiculous museums was New Delhi’s International Museum of Toilets). I visited this museum with friends when I was in junior high school, researching for a project on Freud. We tried on the phrenology device, wrapped ourselves in the conveyor belt that you were suppose to wear as a real belt to eliminate fat, stepped into the x-ray machine to measure foot size that was all the rage with cobblers right after x-rays were discovered. Apparently, even Marie Curie’s death from radiation hadn’t raised red flags with the Adrian X-ray Company, based in Milwaukee (it always comes back to Wisconsin). The last x-ray machine found in operation in a shoe department was in 1981 in West Virginia. 1981.

My favorite museums, at least in theory, are museums of intangibles. I wrote about the Museum of Lost Smells last March, and just found about about the Laughter Museum in Wiesbaden, Germany. Although I’m sure the real museum is nothing like this, I imagine a large white room where people just go in and start laughing. And after having a good laugh yourself, you can tour white hallways listening to a vast library of laughter. Napoleon’s laugh, Gandhi’s laugh, Salvador Dalí’s laugh. The price of admission would be a guffaw. Excuse me, I have to go start designing my laughter museum.

How to be a butterfly biologist

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What you’ll need: a net, a sense of awe

Songlist: Mason Jenning’s Butterfly, Iron and Wine’s On Your Wings

Further Reading: Chasing Monarchs: Migrating with the Butterflies of Passage by Robert Michael Pyle

A lone monarch I spotted in Michoacán

Some girls collected dolls, My Little Ponies, limited edition Beanie Babies (remember those things?!) My thing was butterflies. Cardboard butterflies stuck on my wall. My dad brought me a framed collection of butterflies from Nepal. I raised Painted Lady butterflies from a kit that I got on my seventh birthday, and was heartbroken by the one chrysalis from which a butterfly never emerged, and even more saddened by the Painted Lady that came out with crumpled wings that never fully unfurled.

I didn’t hesitate for a second, then, when the TA on my study abroad in Mexico suggested a trip to Angangüeo in the Mexican state of Michoacán our first weekend. A thousand times larger than the migration of American college students south–currently taking place at campuses near you!–is the strenuous migration of millions of monarchs from the northern United States to central Mexico. This migration is one of the great mysteries of the animal world, for the butterflies that leave my home state of Minnesota die well before the generation that arrive in the state of Michoacán. Research continues on how these tiny creatures know where to go, and how they have the stamina to get there.

To get from the city of Puebla, where I was studying, to the Valley of the Butterflies, my group took a two-hour bus ride up to Mexico City, and then a ten-hour ride to the tiny town of Angangüeo. We kept saying to each other, These butterflies better be damn cool.

Looking up in the Valley of the Butterflies

The next morning we piled into two Vietnam-war-era trucks; I was worried by the shattered window behind my head, but comforted (?) by all the smiling Jesus decals. The trucks took us into the high valley, barreling up washed-out roads and passing other trucks on curves cut into the mountainside. We held on to each other for support and tried not to point out the steep drop from the road to the lower valley. Then, looking through my cracked window, I saw one: a monarch flapping lazily over a field. I was thrilled and pointed it out to my friends, but I could read their tight smiles: We did not come all this way to get excited about one butterfly.

By the time we stopped we had seen maybe a dozen or two monarchs. As soon as we got out of the truck, though, things began to change. We entered the protected monarch habitat and started walking up a forest path. In a small, sun-lit clearing, we saw this:

For the monarch preserve in Michoacán this would be considered a small gathering

Awestruck, we kept climbing. At the top of the path was a wooden board that commanded, in several languages, to keep quiet so as not to disturb the millions of resting monarchs. And millions there were. The trees were coated with orange bodies, so much so that they dragged branches earthward and had even felled trees that weren’t strong enough to hold their aggregate weight. The whole scene was reminiscent of falling leaves in autumn, except these leaves stayed airborne, alighting on whatever space was available.

When we finally descended from this sanctuary, there was a consensus among us, quiet at first then growing louder: Yeah, this trip was worth it. These butterflies are damn cool.