Inside "The Curious Vault," Miami Science Museum's Weird, Historic Archives

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Deep within a room that lies within another room - which is behind a locked door -- there exists an old steel cabinet labeled "Metaphysical Sciences." The documents date back to the 1950s and belonged to Dr. Valentine, a local and peculiar expert on telepathic communication and a foremost scholar of the legend of Atlantis.

Dr. Valentine was a Ph.D in Zoology from Yale and an honorary curator for the Miami Science Museum, which is where this chamber lies. It houses the permanent collection of the museum -- a panoply of bizarrely significant local and global ephemera, most of which has been donated by locals.

Kevin Arrow, an artist in Miami and the collections manager at MSM, walks me through the labyrinthine backrooms. It has rows upon rows of scaffold shelving containing taxidermy creatures, ceremonial war clubs of native New Guineans, and obsolete technologies. Joining him is Nathaniel Sandler, a local writer and piratical mobile librarian who works with Arrow on a column for the Museum called "The Curious Vault".

The two form an eccentric and idiosyncratic duo worthy of studying the collection. Together they've sifted through a sizable portion of the 55,000 objects -- some of which have never been displayed -- analyzing and researching their origins, history, and implications. So far they've written six entries: one on the stockpile of 25 sea turtle shells, another on the queer watercolors done from the perspective of an underwater tube, and others.

They're currently working on a post about the thousands of seashells from all over the world's seas -- most of them donated by locals ranging from grandmas to seashell scientists. Not only will Sandler write a story about these -- Arrow is also working on an exhibit of them to coincide.

As an avid collector himself and Miami New Times Mastermind honorable mention, whose art often explores, creates, and articulates the collections of others, Arrow describes how this collection is much different.

"The Miami Science Museum collection is by far the most varied collection of items I have ever encountered.  It is challenging, but it is definitely easier than caring for the museum's living collection. The fish, owls, turtles, snakes and alligators all have very specific needs. Thankfully the items in my care are not living!"

Sandler -- also a Mastermind Honorable Mention for Bookleggers -- thought up the idea after being invited by Kevin to see the Vault. He now spends hours in there and in libraries researching arcane and mysterious materials.

"I spend a lot of time in libraries combing through whatever information I can find," Sandler said. "Unique research can rarely be done entirely on the Internet. We also go through the object's accession records to see where it came from. A lot of times the objects can be linked to people important to the local landscape. Like J.P. Friez's Sunshine Recorder was donated by the Deering Family of the Deering Estate, or the Seminole Dolls were donated by Deaconess Harriet Bedell, a figure important to the Seminole tribe for helping them realize the importance of handicrafts to their economic well being."

The Curious Vault that holds the MSM's permanent collection is a reflective repository of South Florida's history. Like the museum itself, which was originally just a house set up by a women's civic organization with a goat on the lawn and a beehive in the chimney, the collection is about to go through a major change.

The MSM will be relocating downtown and renamed as the Patricia and Phillip Frost Museum of Science. Not only will the live collection of birds, reptiles, and mammals need to be moved -- so will the priceless contents of the Curious Vault. Luckily, Sandler and Arrow are seeing to it that the collection gets the documentation it deserves.

-- Rob Goyanes

Follow Cultist on Facebook and Twitter @CultistMiami.

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