- An owlephant, or whatever, at the Museum of Unnatural History. (Photo: TBD Staff)
Mike Scalise is giving me a tour of Columbia Height's Museum of Unnatural History, which opened Saturday, and he wants to make sure I don't miss the "species assembly kiosk." It doesn't require pointing out: standing atop the table is an 8-foot-tall skeleton of a creature that doesn't now exist, and never did. The skull and antlers appear to be those of an antelope, but its tail is long and curled like a monkey's, its rib cage might be that of a big cat, and it bears a pair of diminutive, vestigial wings. The shelves below are lined with pill bottles for "prehensile tail," "resplendent plumage," and "sustained release camouflage," plus bottles of liquid marked "unicorn burp," "extinct spray," and "confused wood."
"We have a 'very apathetic wood,' but for reasons that don't need explaining, they haven't arrived yet," deadpans Scalise.
The museum is full of other curios: an "expert skipping stone" (a red brick), a safari hat/soup bowl, and a "boar wall" containing the heads of "black boar," "brown boar," and "goat boar" — "a mix of the real and almost-real, kind of like the center," he says.
- The "boar wall." (Photo: TBD Staff)
Oh, right. The center. Lost on this Wes Anderson set — or, more aptly, a McSweeney's issue come to life — I'd forgotten all about the faux-museum's purpose as a storefront for 826DC, the non-profit writing center that's been running programs in D.C. public schools for the past two years, serving more than 1,000 students. Only now, though, does the center have somewhere to call home, an ample retail space sandwiched between a Pollo Campero and FroZenYo in Columbia Heights Plaza. The center is the eighth location in the country opened by 826, a nationwide organization co-founded by author Dave Eggers, who also founded McSweeney's.
Scalise, the programs manager, calls 826DC, which serves students aged 6-18, "a place where they can come, have a good time, and be themselves." It's also a place for learning and creativity, and the "museum" storefront is just the beginning. With hundreds of volunteers of every stripe, the center will provide free after-school tutoring, in-school instruction, workshops, and "field trips," which I put in quotations because the students won't actually go anywhere; instead, in the center itself, they'll conceive, write, edit, illustrate, and publish books — all in the span of two hours.
"Every way, shape, and form, we turn students into authors," says Scalise.
Given D.C.'s appalling literacy rate, there's no reason the Museum of Unnatural History shouldn't eventually be as packed as the Museum of Natural History.
For more images, check out Scalise's gallery of the center's transformation: