Museum of Menstruation - Closed
New Carrollton, Maryland
On this quiet, tree-lined suburban street, there is no welcoming sign. Without explicit directions, we would never figure out which of the nicely kept brick and ranch homes is our destination. This is quite understandable, since we're looking for the Museum of Menstruation.
It's in the panel-finished half-basement of a one-story brick home on the outskirts of Washington DC, just a mile or so off the eastern curve of the 495 Beltway. The neighbors know about the museum, but have never visited. In fact, they politely never mention it in conversation with its founder and curator.
He is one Harry Finley, a calm 50-ish bachelor, who lives in the home above. He greets us in the driveway with a big smile; we called ahead (only open on weekends by appointment). We had hoped to take along wives and/or woman friends, a year-old plan that never coagulated. It's just us Roadside guys today, rationalizing this is no different than any Mystery Spot attraction. Yea, sure...
Harry leads us down the narrow basement stairs, where our first sight is a number of "lower trunk" mannequins hanging from cords. They slowly twist, modeling menstrual attire through the ages. Our host mesmerizes us for a good hour with all manner of feminine hygiene lore and minutia. He is as enthusiastic as any fervent collector we have met. "Here's a US Army tampon launcher, an unusual issue," he notes. "I have to show you my collection of little menstrual cups..." His flow is interrupted only when we pose him for photos near a particularly disturbing tableau.
"These are some of the first commercial tampons ever made."
Harry started the museum in 1995, an outgrowth of a collection he started years earlier in Europe. While posted in Germany as a graphic designer for the US government, Harry researched print ad layouts. Among the thousands he accumulated, he became keenly interested in Kotex and menstrual product ads.
The artifact half of his collection was spotty at first. As word spread, individuals and even product manufacturers sent Harry unique items. It seems that while no one wanted to talk about it, many wanted to make sure that their Menstrual Treasures were preserved.
The tour starts at a display of art, text, and a partly filled plastic cup glued onto matte board. "What is Menstruation? This explains the rough physiology; here is a cup showing roughly the average amount of blood lost by a woman during menstruation."
We move to a wall of appliances, and a table full of washable pads and assorted knickknack's. A can of snack food catches our eye. Harry explains. "That's PMS Crunch, from the Time of the Month company -- a combination of goodies which will help assuage the pains and discomforts of menstruation." Another wall features drawings and documents from the History of Menstruation, including a horrid 1867 invention involving metal and wires, "patented by a man."
Harry uses a scholarly and meticulous approach for a collection that is admittedly controversial -- some of his relatives are still upset. He claims nearly 95% of his visitors are "very intelligent women," but they usually have a man in tow, who stands around looking out of place, nervous.
It's probably that Hannibal Lecter/Kiss the Girls vibe. A close friend jokingly asked him where he "buries the bodies" -- if Harry wasn't such a well-adjusted regular guy. (Behind the storage room wall, we'd bet, where shelves piled high with menstrual products would discourage thorough police work.) He laughs and opens a refrigerator in the main room -- to prove it's empty, before we get back on track.
While Harry coolly leverages the absurd aspects of his creation, he also plays the role of the serious-minded curator. One day he wishes to open a legit Museum of Women's Health in DC -- free admission, part of a gallery complex with a coffee bar and gift shop. His Board of Directors includes the world's foremost expert on feminine hygiene product safety, and a co-designer of the space shuttle's hygiene system. At the same time, all his cats have endowed chairs with the museum.
As he talks, those creepy dangling mannequin trunks lazily spin. He frets over whether they look too sexy with the shirts on or off.
"I bought them for 35 bucks a piece . I didn't get the legs and rest of the body simply because of cost. Some woman find them offensive, like something from the Nazi concentration camps..."
While Harry may be no fetishist himself, he acknowledges several have contributed -- anonymously -- to his collection. "The underwear on these mannequins is from a guy in the Midwest who called me one day. He used to have his girlfriend dress up in this stuff, but had since gotten married to someone else who didn't know about it. It had been in his attic, he read about the museum ...and donated boxes and boxes."
The Museum has received immense media attention in the last few years, culminating in Harry's admirable survival on the Howard Stern show. He peppers his tour banter -- at least, for us -- with mentions of TV talk show appearances. Harry maintains the museum's nonprofit org's Web site; we caution it may soak up energies better spent on the real world museum.
|Meet Harry Finley. Quicktime movie clip at the Museum [3.5mb]|
Harry saves his greatest artifact for last -- his pink menstrual cup dress. It's made out of hundreds of "Instead" menstrual cups. "The company donated it to me, then went out of business. I may have the greatest single collection of cups in this dress." He has never worn it, and certainly won't put it on for our snapshot. We are strangely relieved . . .
"I thought working for the government -- which is not the most exciting thing -- and being middle aged and having been through a lot of crap in my life, I thought, maybe I could start a museum. It's taboo, it combines anthropology and sociology and history and art... I thought, why not lighten up my life and do it?"
January 1999: The Museum of Menstruation (MUM) has closed the doors of its New Carrollton, MD, facility, and can now only be visited via the web. MUM founder Harry Finley had maintained his eclectic collection in the basement of his modest ranch home, opening by appointment to the public on weekends. "I am looking for a public location after four years of having MUM in my house," Harry informed us.
The decision to close the basement operation was made by Harry partly due to his concern for public safety. "One thing that amazes me is that nothing bad ever happened -- no one slipped on the stairs and sued me, etc. That concerned me a few months before I closed; I felt I was tempting fate." He holds down a full time job with the government, and couldn't offer weekday hours with any regularity.