"We were first here in 1985. Has anything changed?"
"No," answers the nice lady who lets us in the entrance of an eclectic blue, green and orange-tiled building. We appreciate the candor, and immediately lower our expectations. But the Mummers Museum ends up delighting, as always...
What's a Mummer? They're like glittery human party favors -- banjo-strumming, sax-honking, glockenspiel-tinkling -- who parade through the streets of Philadelphia every New Year's Day. That day it doesn't matter how cold or miserable the weather is -- the Mummers are out in force, 15,000 of them, strutting with abandon.
Off-season, the accomplished cream-of-the-crop tour the region as the Mummer String Bands. But the rawest talent flows each New Year's parade in a 2 1/2 mile long stream of novel costumes, musical acts and comic concepts.
The Mummer Museum sits on a slightly crusty street in south Philadelphia, an area that is home to many of the tradition's hard core veterans. Here since 1976, its timeless exhibits celebrate the history and splendor of America's Oldest Continual Folk Festival, which started in 1901 (but traces roots back to1880 with a hazily described event labeled "Shooting in the Neck," a drunken ritual of masqueraders).
Things have changed at the museum -- or at least many of the costumes are new. The first floor exhibits start with a "Winner's Circle" of the prior year's award-winning outfits. A TV shows top ten winners in last year's String Band competition. There's also a darkened banquet hall, no doubt used for Mummer recognition events, weddings, parties.
Upstairs is a larger gallery of costumes, a historical section, and interactive exhibits. The costumes, representing the best of the Fancy, Comic and String Band divisions, are as ostentatious as ever, displayed in individual and group scenes. Walking pirate ships. Wizard of Oz entourages. Marching plastic army men. Formerly trendy themes echo pop culture, such as 1990's "Dirty Dancing" first prize. The dancer is a giant trash can with lips and eyes.
We notice immediately there is a plentitude of aliens and monsters absent during earlier visits. We decide it's more fun to think of this phase of the Mummers Museum collection as a display of archvillians from old Star Trek episodes. Then it all hangs together. Even the happy trash can costume could have been a third season throwaway....
Then there's 1995's second prize awarded to 4-yr.old Jimmy French, Jr. for his depiction of Jail House Rock. It is a child mannequin in prison stripes, surrounded on three sides by "iron bars." The sign says he "carried his cage all the way up Market Street."
The history section reminds that women were banned from the Mummers parade until 1983, but have a long history of sneaking in. Women disguised as men dressed as women?
"Be a Mummer" is an eerie optical illusion -- you stick your face in a hole and see yourself in full Mummer costume. Unfortunately, the main light appeared to have burned out, marring the intended effect. Then again, who are we to judge a Mummer's self-image?
One memorable display is still fully operational. Pressing buttons triggers musical intruments -- banjo, accordion, sax, glockenspiel -- in a realistic, ill-timed cacophony. It's the Famous Mummers Wall of Sound....
Before you leave, check out the "Mummerable Gifts."
While some exhibits are a little tattered, we get the sense the staff will be dusting before the real Mummer tourist season starts. Like a Santa's Village, it's most popular during the warm weather -- when you can't see a real Mummer strutting up Market Street.