Railways, chocolate and the Vikings are already covered, but now York is set to welcome a new museum that will be a shrine to the oddball. Sarah Freeman reports.
Pandora’s Box isn’t like any other shop in York. On one shelf there are candles in the shape of babies’ heads, on the wall is a stuffed boar wearing a top hat and just behind the cash desk is a jar simply labelled “pig snouts”. They are going for £4 each. Pop by on the weekend or during the school holidays and chances are you’ll be greeted by a small child who will ask if you’d like to meet Uncle Charlie. Say yes and you’ll be led into a back room and to a coffin containing a skeleton.
“Pandora has grown up surrounded by our collection, so she thinks it’s entirely normal,” says Heather Bowser, who along with her partner Greg, has a fascination with things which give most people nightmares and the shop is just the start.
The couple recently launched a successful crowdfunding campaign to turn the back room into a museum. Whether Pandora’s Cabinet of Peculiarities and Other Side Show Curiosities will be able to rival Jorvik in terms of visitor numbers remains to be seen, but it will be the only place in the city where you’re likely to find a mummified cat in a glass box.
“We would have gone ahead with the plans for the museum even if we hadn’t raised the money, but it would just have taken us a lot longer. Now it feels like we can really push ahead. It’s been a long journey to get to this point, but having our very own museum will make the hard work worth it.”
It was a journey that began back in the late 1990s when American Heather met Yorkshire-born Greg online. At the time internet dating was just in its infancy, but after a year of emails and phone calls Heather booked a flight to England. By the end of the week she and Greg were engaged.
In a previous life she worked as a doctor’s receptionist and Greg had a job in a motorbike shop and while they share a love of the macabre, neither can quite explain where the idea for the shop or the museum came from.
“There is a streak of weird in both of us,” admits Heather. “As a child, I would go to flea markets but would never buy the usual girly things. Instead I would come back with bags of sea shells or fossils and I spent many happy afternoons arranging funerals for roadkill.
“Greg was the same. He grew up in the Yorkshire countryside finding little dead bits of things and trying to put them back together. For a while he also had a chicken named Henrietta who he took for rides in an old pram.”
While Greg may no longer have the chicken, his love for all things weird never left him and having met Heather the pair began amassing their own off-beat collection.
“It started off by us buying and selling items on eBay,” adds Heather. “However, when I had Pandora I didn’t just want to go back to work to pay for childcare so I decided to see if I could turn it into a business. We were living out in Connecticut, opened a little shop and built up a pretty loyal customer base.”
Business was ticking along nicely, but the couple wanted to move to England before their daughter started school and arrived in York two years ago.
“We did look at Whitby because of its Gothic connections, but we eventually settled on York because it meant we could be closer to Greg’s parents. We weren’t sure whether we would be able to get a premises in the city centre, but then this place came up which was just perfect.”
A former almshouse for widows, Pandora’s Box lies at the end of Colliergate, a stone’s throw from the Shambles, and it has become a bit of a curiosity in its own right.
“We get a lot of people coming in just to browse and that’s really why we wanted to start a museum. The thing about these objects is that while not everyone wants them on their mantelpiece, it’s hard not to be fascinated by them.”
Heather also runs taxidermy workshops and over the years Greg has become something of an expert in diaphonization, a scientific process in which chemicals are used to render the skin of an animal translucent, while dyes are used to colour the bones or cartilage.
“The one thing we have been clear about from the start is that we will only stock things we like,” says Heather, whose particular pride and joy is an unrivalled collection of antique asylum equipment. “A lot of now redundant asylums have been left to crumble into history because no one knows quite what to do with them, but I’ve always thought that it’s important to remember the horrendous things which went on in these places. It was a chapter in our collective history that shouldn’t be forgotten.”
There is no such thing, says Heather, as a typical customer, although there are more than the usual number of tattoo artists and fully-paid up eccentrics on their database and many of them contributed to the crowdfunding campaign. Depending on how much they donated, in return they received a Pandora’s Box tote bag, a T-shirt bearing a print of lobotomy tools and the slogan Open your Mind, or the chance to run the shop for the day.
“We have always said that we are York’s one-stop weird shop,” says Heather. “Now we just need to get the museum up and running and we will be a complete hub for the kooky and the creepy.”