When I first walked into the Cryptozoology Museum of Portland, Maine, there were two things that struck me. The first was how well-organized the place was – with taxidermy animals, anthropological samples and lots of books and documents in display cases throughout the two-room building.
The second thing that struck me was how nice it was to be welcomed to the museum by none other than Loren Coleman himself.
I had been having email exchanges for two days prior to taking my family over to the museum for the first time, and Loren was immediately open to having a discussion and introducing us to his museum. Meeting Loren for the first time, I felt that I was meeting someone that knew far more about the subject matter of cryptozoology than he could ever take the time to describe to his visitors.
That is in fact the case – Loren has published or co-authored seventeen books and authored over three hundred articles on the subject. He has personally researched Black Panther sightings and North American ape sightings in the Midwest, and he’s hunted down giant snakes, the Mothman, and yes – even Bigfoot – in the course of his adventures.
Dressed in the garb of a field guide – a khaki shirt and pants – Loren immediately brought us to the first case in the exhibit, a timeline of well-known creatures that were once considered “mystery creatures.” He showed us how, even as late as the 1970s, there were real creatures that were only known to humanity in the form of mysterious sightings and claims.
Exploring the Cryptozoology Museum of Portland
If you're expecting to encounter some lunatic Bigfoot-hunter at the Portland Museum, you will be sorely disappointed. Coleman has a degree in anthropology with a minor in zoology. He has done archaeological field work, and is well versed in sociology, and has a master's degree in psychiatric social work - so you can be sure he is a man that knows the signs of delusion.
Meeting Loren for the first time, you would not suspect that he has been featured on or has been a consultant for shows like NBC's "Unsolved Mysteries", A&E's "Ancient Mysteries", and in Sony's feature video "Search for the Mothman" on the DVD version of The Mothman Prophecies.
As a researcher devoted to the use of science in every exploration, I was very excited to talk to guy with a background like Loren's, who also happens to have had an interest in the field of cryptozoology for the last couple of decades.
The above is the view you'll see when you first walk into the museum. It's small, but it's packed with a lot of great information if you are an enthusiast. If you don't have interest in cryptozoology, the information packed into this room may be lost on you.
If you're well versed in the field, once you get over the excitement of meeting Loren in person, you will find yourself in a virtual goldmine of interesting artifacts and documents.
Artifacts and Documents
One of the first documents I went to upon entering the museum was the letter from Jimmy Stewart, related to the whole controversy surrounding his visit to India in 1959, when he allegedly smuggled the so-called "Pangboche Hand" out of the country by hiding it in his luggage on his way to London.
We'll cover that story in detail here at TopSecretWriters in the future, but what I really wanted to see was Jimmy Stewart's actual signature on the letter...he is, after all, one of my favorite actors of all time.
And yes, that's "fecal matter" on the placard next to the letter. It references the alleged fecal samples collected by an expedition in 1959. According to Loren, the samples have been featured on a number of television series including MonsterQuest.
With that out of the way, I continued on through my exploration of the museum. There are plenty of bigfoot casts, as you would expect to be found in any cryptozoology museum worth it's salt.
Many of these are placed alongside documentation that describes the location and history of the cast. In other places there's little documentation available. My wife commented on the fact that some of the casts look almost too "perfect" - with small toes that look like baby-human toes in comparison to the enormous size of the foot.
While I couldn't disagree in the case of some of the prints, there were actually one or two casts that looked very convincing.
I really appreciated how well Loren documented the history and background of all of the artifacts that he could - clearly a lot of work and research went into all of these displays.
One of my favorite display cases is one that I call the "bone case" - a collection of various bone samples, and in particular a few skulls that have an interesting story behind them (take the time to read the story that Loren took the time to document).
One of the skulls really appeared to me to look like nothing more than a small monkey skull. However, not being an anthropologist, I approached Loren to explain how scientists that make such discoveries could tell the difference between the two.
He explained that the species could be identified by the structure of the skull itself - that there are specific markers that help anthropologists identify humanoid skulls.
A Respect for Hoaxes
What I really liked about the museum layout is how Loren devotes a percentage of the museum to showing visitors just how easy it is to create a hoax. In fact, there are several exhibits where he accomplishes that task well.
The first is actually one of the most popular exhibits of the museum, the FeeJee Mermaid. The "mermaid" was promoted by P.T. Barnum for many years, after Moses Kimball gave it to him in 1842. Kimball owned it, but he leased it to Barnum, who exhibited it as a creature of oddity in his shows.
Throughout the years, numerous visitors saw the exhibit and believed that it was in fact a real mermaid. It wasn't until years later that it was revealed that the Fiji (FeeJee) Mermaid was nothing more than the head of a baby monkey sewn to the tail end of a large fish, and then covered up in papier-mâché.
The exhibit is a reminder to guests that if one is going to enter into the world of cryptozoology (or any related field for that matter) - a careful, critical approach is important. As Loren writes on the museum website, "Critical thinking is important to this museum."
Another important, and much more recent example of why critical thinking is so important is the Internet rumor that started in the 1990s related to a civil war photograph featuring Civil War soldiers posing with the remains of a pterodactyl.
Many Internet crypto-fanatics became convinced that the photograph - found between the pages of a used paranormal book - was evidence of the "Thunderbird" described by and photographed by zoologist Ivan Sanderson (photo was subsequently lost).
The photograph was fascinating, and people quickly pointed to it as "evidence" of a real creature that existed. However, before long it was discovered that the photograph was really a promo-photograph used by Haxan Production ("Blair Witch Project" producers) to promote a new Fox TV series called "Freaky Links" in 2000.
The pterodactyl seen in the photo was nothing more than a prop. Loren obtained the prop from Fox, and now displays it in his museum as another example of why critical thinking skills are so important.
Discovering New Mysteries
While most people probably visit the cryptozoology museum to catch of glimpse of some strange, odd artifact - a lock of Bigfoot's hair or a cast of Bigfoot's track - the most interesting part of the visit for me were the documents and stories that Loren put together for visitors.
I noted a list of at least a half-dozen old tales that I've never researched before - or only heard about briefly - a treasure-chest full of stories, legends and tales that might open up new doors, and new places to explore.
And really - isn't that what such a museum is all about? Doesn't each generation of explorer and adventurer seek to instill upon the next generation just how wonderful and exciting not only the mystery can be, but also the hunt and the exploration itself?
Before I left the museum, I had a quick chat with Loren and asked him, "Does it ever bother you to see or hear about people going out in search of Bigfoot who have absolutely no scientific training or background?"
Loren's response revealed, in part, one of the reasons he started the museum in 2003 - to encourage new explorers and adventurers to consider the world of the unknown.
"I really don't have a problem with people that want to head out there and search for Bigfoot. It's a part of the tourism - it can be a family experience. I just talked with a guy that told me next weekend he would be taking his kids out to a lake to search for a lake creature. I think that's great. What I do have a problem with are those guys that head out into the woods in search of Bigfoot and call it a 'scientific expedition', and they have absolutely no scientific background. That's not science."
It was an answer that made me appreciate Loren and his museum even that much more.