President Reagan and Pets

To most museum-goers, the words “animal exhibit” probably conjure images of dinosaur skeletons and stale lectures about evolution.

Well, not anymore. A new generation of museum directors is reinvigorating the idea of animal exhibits — with off-the-wall museums celebrating presidential pets, furry sailors, the human-animal bond, animal crimes, mummies and even sex.

We got the scoop on these quirky pet and animal museums — some of them aren't even open yet! Get ready.

Pets Fit for a President

Claire McLean got hooked on presidential pets back in the Reagan administration, after she visited the White House to groom Lucky, the Reagans’ Bouvier des Flandres dog.

"They have museums for just about everything, including presidents,” she says. “So why shouldn’t their pets have a museum also?"

She founded the Presidential Pet Museum in Williamsburg, Va., in 1999. Though that location closed in the fall, McLean will reopen the museum next year in Glen Allen, Va. Its exhibits use photographs, statues, trivia, memorabilia and commercial items to honor the furry members of the first family. One of McLean’s primary goals is to teach visitors, particularly children, that responsible pet ownership starts at the top. The museum features portraits of three dogs — Barney Bush, Miss Beazley Bush and Lucky Reagan — made with their own hair clipped from a White House grooming. McLean hasn’t yet had any luck getting some luxurious locks from Bo Obama.

Another exhibit shows off a cowbell that belonged to Pauline Wayne, the last cow to ever reside at the White House. Pauline was Howard Taft’s personal milk cow, since the president liked to have fresh milk every morning. The museum also features a statue of Tiny Tim, a Chow owned by Calvin Coolidge, and a life-sized bronze statue of George W. Bush’s Scottish Terrier, Barney. The sculpture was crafted by Richard Chashoudina, a renowned dog handler who won Best in Show at the 100th Westminster Dog Show in 1976.

"There are over 400 animals that have been in the White House,” McLean says. “Either walking or scooting or crashing across the lawn."

Exhibiting the Human-Animal Bond

Working as an animal law attorney in Illinois, Amy Breyer couldn’t shake the feeling that the main concern of the 12 jury members in each courtroom was how soon they could leave. She still wanted to advocate for animals but realized that litigation wasn’t the way to go about it.

“It occurred to me that if I wanted to get people engaged, and thinking about this underlying concept, people needed to look at it on their own time, at their own pace, and think about it in their own way,” she says. “So I mulled it over, and it coalesced into a museum.”

The Animal History Museum, of which Breyer is now president, will focus on exploring the human-animal bond, from exotic pets to therapy dogs. Exhibits will delve into animal intelligence, animals in television and film, vegetarian and vegan food trends, animals in religion and animal welfare and law. Breyer says she wants the museum to be a “good place to learn and think in a nonjudgmental, no-pressure atmosphere.”

She hopes to open the museum in a small space in Los Angeles by the end of the year. The organization has already released its first online exhibit, a collection of wildlife photography. Valentine’s Day and shelter pet photo contests on the museum’s Facebook page have drawn supporters, and the group plans to begin museum-sponsored lectures and events in the coming months.

Cat With Sailor

Ahoy, Matey

The Museum of Maritime Pets in Annapolis, Md., aims to honor animals who sailed the high seas. It’s the brainchild of Maryland resident Pat Sullivan, who owns a pet-sitting business and has spent years collecting photographs, books, diaries and artwork about maritime pets. She has registered the museum as a nonprofit and assembled volunteers and a board of directors. She plans to open a physical museum soon.

"It's known that as soon as man went to sea thousands of years ago, he usually had animals with him," Sullivan says. "So it's not only of historic interest, but it's also a very emotional story to tell, too: Why has man found it comforting to have animals with him at sea?"

For now, the material is presented in lectures the museum hosts about history and current animal welfare issues, and online at a website Sullivan started in 2006. The museum will feature stories of ship mascots, military carrier pigeons and pets who offered companionship to sailors recovering from battle wounds. Among the featured animals is a famous mixed-breed dog named Sinbad, who served during World War II on the Coast Guard cutter Campbell and achieved the rank of chief petty officer.

Sex, Crime — and Mummies?

You might be surprised by the range of museums that feature animal exhibits:

  • The Museum of Crime and Punishment in Washington, D.C., will open a temporary exhibit next month called "Crimes Against Marine Life." The display honors the 40th anniversary of the passage of the Marine Mammal Protection Act and warns of the dangers of shark finning and sea pollution. Visitors will learn how plastic, trash and discarded fishing nets kill millions of animals each year and how law enforcement treats these crimes against marine species.
  • Since 2008, New York City’s Museum of Sex has included an exhibit called "The Sex Lives of Animals." And we’re not just talking about reproduction here. “Sex in the animal kingdom is as multifarious and nuanced as it is in the human realm; and sex-for-pleasure, it seems, is not just restricted to Homo sapiens,” the exhibit explains. The exhibit shows off the birds and the bees of the animal kingdom with life-sized sculptures of, yes, animals having sex.
  • The Animal Mummy Project catalogs the mummified creatures at the Egyptian Museum of Antiquities, located in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. The team works to discover more about now-extinct species and veterinary practices in ancient Egypt. It also studies which animals were sacrificed in religious ceremonies and which ones may have been kept as domesticated pets, like dogs or sacred rams.

Check out this video about the Presidential Pet Museum, and tell us: What quirky animal museum would you like to see open next?