Petrified Cat.
Mr. Wentworth's famous Petrified Cat. Behind it, framed, is a gold coin he found on a Pensacola beach in 1906.

Wentworth Museum Oddities Exhibit (Gone)

Field review by the editors.

Pensacola, Florida

While the T.T. Wentworth Jr. Florida State Museum may continue to exist in some form, Wentworth's oddity collection is no longer on display. This story is about the old exhibit... [updated 2020-7-30]

Lincoln Head made from pulped money.
Lincoln Head made out of $8,000 in pulped money.

Long before "crowdsourcing" was a word, Theodore Thomas Wentworth Jr. was using it to fill his museum.

Petrified cat? Check. Shoe of a giant? Got it.

Wentworth officially opened his museum in 1957, but unofficially he'd been exhibiting odd items since the 1920s, showcasing them in the windows of his Pensacola bicycle shop. By the time he retired in 1983, Wentworth had amassed over 150,000 objects, ranging from a tiny ship in a light bulb to a piece of Thomas Edison's birthday cake. Many of them were simply given to him by the people of Pensacola.

"Everyone participated, and that's kind of sweet," said Gale Messerschmidt, Curator of Exhibits for what is now the T.T. Wentworth Jr. Florida State Museum. "A person would have something they thought was really cool, and they'd say, 'I bet Mr. Wentworth would like that.' And he would!"

Sacred water in old shampoo tubes.
Sacred water from the Holy Land in old shampoo tubes.

Wentworth's nonjudgmental museum-stuffing won him the trust of the people. His museum was Pensacola's walk-in closet. Anyone could bring him anything, tell him what they knew (or thought they knew) about it, and he would accept it as fact. He would put their name on the item, display it, tell its story to visitors, and promise to preserve it for posterity. "I never throwed nothin' away," Wentworth would say, and he didn't; all 150,000+ of his artifacts were eventually donated to the state of Florida, which exhibits many of them throughout what is now a serious, multi-building museum complex.

The heart of the modern Wentworth campus, however, is one room on the second floor of its main building: a recreation of Wentworth's original, cluttered museum, featuring many of his best-known items.

"I tried to interpret it as most people remembered it," said Gale, who designed the room and chose the objects. "No matter how many times you visited, you would never see it all" (Gale knew that firsthand; she toured the museum several times as a child).

In the room's carefully reconstructed chaos, visitors can glimpse items such as a head of President Lincoln made of mulched U.S. money; a battered bulkhead light from the sunken USS Maine; a postcard covered in microscopic writing by a man who entered it in a contest and won a piano.

T.T. Wentworth Jr. Florida State Museum
The Wentworth Room: packed with everything from a Confederate torpedo to the shoe of the World's Tallest Man.

"My grandparents would've thrown those kinds of things out," said Gale. "Mr. Wentworth had the intuition to see their value."

The petrified cat, one learns, was found inside a Pensacola wall in 1946. An imaginative drawing depicts it frantically clawing in an attempt to escape. "As a curator, sometimes you wear cotton gloves, sometimes you wear rubber gloves," said Gale. "When I moved the petrified cat, I wore rubber gloves."

Grenades and bullets.
Grenades and bullets are all duds, we hope.

The giant shoe belonged to Robert Wadlow, the World's Tallest Man. "While in Pensacola," reads an accompanying sign, "Wadlow stopped for dinner at the Child Restaurant on Palafox Street... he ate ordinary portions of shrimp cocktail, broiled pork chops, mashed potatoes, green peas, lettuce salad, two pieces of pecan pie, and coffee."

Wentworth's casual approach to documentation has forced some posthumous rewriting of his collection's history. The "leg bone of a prehistoric animal" (which Mr. Wentworth proudly holds in an old photograph) turned out to be from a dead Sarasota circus elephant. A human shrunken head, which gave nightmares to generations of Pensacola schoolchildren, was actually a slightly less terrifying monkey shrunken head. It is now displayed in one of the Wentworth complex's historic homes, formerly owned by a sea captain, as an example of a sailor's souvenir.

During our visit, we watched several families tour the Wentworth room. The parents would look around -- perhaps glimpsing the dog made of nut burrs or the pedal car made from an aerial bomb -- then make a face as if to say, "This is too weird," and leave. But the kids always stayed. They ran around, looking at the animal heads and old license plates on the walls, or peeking at the Confederate torpedo or the horseshoe from the War of 1812 embedded in a tree. They loved it, and they didn't leave until their parents returned to drag them away.

"Some people say, 'Oh, that's just junk; that doesn't belong in a museum,'" said Gale. "Those people take themselves way too seriously."

Wentworth Museum Oddities Exhibit

T.T. Wentworth Jr. Florida State Museum


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