Curiouser and Curiouser
Words by Michelle Stiles
Where can you go to see a collection of human skulls from around the world, a two-headed snake, a pickled nose and a 250-year-old mummified erect penis worth $10,000? Forget the Natural History Museum – the Bizarre and Weird Shop, tucked away in a Newquay side street, has all this and more...
It’s not every day that you get to sniff an authentic shrunken human head. While this is probably not an experience that would feature in many people’s ‘ten things to do before I die’ wish list, after an hour or so in the company of Robbo Hudson – Newquay’s very own Indiana Jones – I find myself cheerfully sniffing the inside of the tiny human head he’s holding and agreeing that it ‘smells of shoes’.
We’re standing at the entrance to Robbo’s curio museum – a small, dark room adjoining his ‘Bizarre and Weird Shop’, which is lined from top to bottom with the strangest collection of objects I think I have ever seen. Robbo, having just given me a tour of the museum, is now explaining the intricacies of the ancient art of head shrinking. “In the jungle it takes about seven days to shrink them,” he says matter-of-factly, “but if you brought me one here I could probably do it in about 18 to 22 hours. You boil it, pull it out every fifteen minutes, pour in hot sand, and it shrinks down like a crisp packet.”
This is a subject that some people might find a tad unsettling, but to Robbo, it’s all in a day’s work. He’s spent the last 20 years collecting extraordinary objects from all over the world, and his museum is now packed with skulls and skeletons of all shapes and sizes, various prehistoric fossils, and a mind-boggling array of stuffed, pickled and mummified animals with all manner of strange deformities. Mixed in with these are a series of man-made creations – a set of pickled aliens from the set of Men in Black, a ‘swamp monkey’ head fashioned by Robbo himself from the ‘back end of a deer’, and a ‘baby dragon’ made from the skeleton of a monitor lizard and a pair of bat’s wings (again put together by Robbo).
His fascination with unusual objects began at school. “I started because I like rare things. When I was a kid I started collecting Penny Black stamps – that was what all the other kids had missing from their stamp collections. You could buy damaged ones for about £1.50. In the end I had a whole page full of them... Then when I did science at school I got interested in all the pickled animals they had in jars. I started talking to farmers and collecting animals that were born with two heads and things like that. If a school closed down I’d buy the contents of the lab. I ended up with a cupboard full of weird things and it carried on from there.”
He now deals in skulls, skeletons and collectable curios, selling mainly to artists (including Damien Hirst), medical students and doctors. “My biggest customers, strangely enough, are middle-aged women,” says Robbo. Clearly, though, he’s not in it for the money (he’s the first to admit he doesn’t really make any). He does it because he has a genuine passion for his subject. When people arrive at the shop, Robbo comes into his own. Giving each visitor a personal guided tour around the museum, he entertains them with a patter which, though he’s probably repeated it a thousand times over (I hear it at least three times during my visits) is genuinely fascinating and a treat to listen to.
In fact, the stories of how Robbo acquired the items in his collection are often just as intriguing as the objects themselves. Many have been donated by previous visitors to the museum. “A lot of people send things to me in the post or bring things in,” explains Robbo. “One person sent their dog’s testicles in, and another person sent their horse’s testicles. Someone else brought some dried frogs back from Cyprus. There’s an artificial hip sent in by one woman – I was the only person she could think of who might appreciate it. She also sent me her mother’s ashes in a camera film case. I thought it might have been some of my mates having a wind up, so I wrote to her to make sure it was genuine. She sent me a lovely letter all about her mum, and a copy of the death certificate.”
Robbo also has some local contacts who supply him with oddities. “Farmers often give me things, like the eight legged lamb. I also know quite a few people who own pet shops – when things die they stick them in the freezer for me and I come along and collect them and send them to the taxidermist.”
On his travels in Africa he was often given artefacts in exchange for things like pens, electrical goods, or his own labour. There are carved Dayak trophy skulls from Borneo, given to him by villagers after he showed them how to dig a mosquito-proof well, and a round, black melon-sized ball resembling a ‘grey’ alien head, which Robbo explains is actually a bull’s scrotum. “It came through the post at Christmas. In a couple of places I went to in Africa, I gave them a generator and a TV and video, so they can watch films in the middle of the jungle, and now they send me stuff every so often.”
Unfortunately, though, it seems that Robbo’s museum, like so many of the items within it, is destined to become a thing of the past – in this country at any rate. He and his family are selling up and moving to South Africa sometime in the New Year, and the museum, if the new owner’s application goes through, might soon be replaced by... wait for it... a sex shop. But that’s another story.
You can find the Bizarre and Weird Shop at The Old Print House, Hooper’s Lane, Newquay, TR7 1DJ. Go check it out before it’s too late! 01637 871326 /