A few weeks ago, one Londonist writer found himself breaking the ultimate London taboo, and actually visiting Ripley’s Believe It Or Not. This is his story.
One, two, three, four.
Hmm. That didn’t sound right.
I looked again. Still four. So I counted again, this time squinting really hard. One, two, three… nope, no matter how intently I stared, no matter how hard I counted, I just couldn’t get past four.
Thinking by this point that I must be going mad, I beckoned to my brother-in-law. “How many legs can you see on that six-legged deer?” I asked him.
He squinted, giving me some insight into quite how silly I’d looked when I did it. “Four,” he said.
“The sign says six.”
“To be fair,” he said, thoughtfully, “they have put it at the back.”
If you’ve been in London for any length of time, you’ll almost certainly be aware of Ripley’s Believe It Or Not. The ‘odditorium’, as its owner upsettingly styles it, has occupied six whole floors of the Trocadero since 2008, and claims to be the only attraction in the city open 365 days a year, so you can, if you’re so inclined, visit on Christmas Day. This place, in fact, is just the London outpost of a global franchise, encompassing several dozen odditoriums, a cartoon strip that’s been running since 1918, and a whole succession of books, radio and television series.
But, while you’re no doubt familiar with the posters advertising encounters with life-sized models of Robert Wadlow, the world’s tallest man, or Earl Hughes, the world’s fattest, I’d wager that most of you haven’t actually been there. It’s the kind of place you might go if you’re a tourist, or, at a pinch, if you have a selection of small and demanding kids. But it’s not a place where actual Londoners would actually go. A real Londoner would no more spend their day off at Ripley’s Believe It Or Not than they’d go clubbing in Leicester Square, or take the tube one stop from Covent Garden to get there.
In late February, on a family day out, I did find myself at Ripley’s. And, true to its name, the odditorium is about the oddest place I’ve ever been. That shouldn’t be surprising – the whole point of the franchise, after all, is to collect weirdness, in all its many forms – but what really got me was the incredibly flexible approach it takes when deciding what counts as weird.
The most predictable stuff is that which falls under the heading of ‘freak show’. The giants. The midgets. The collection of stuffed mutant animals, most of which, in fact, do clearly have the advertised number of heads or limbs. The traditional tribal accessories, as promised in the first room you come into by an endlessly repeated voiceover, which comes round to the spooky promise of “shrunken heads, too” roughly once every 37 seconds. All this is exactly what one might expect.
But there’s also a lot of what one might charitably describe as ‘outsider art’. Here is a portrait of Michelle Obama, composed entirely of bottle tops. Here a ferrari, knitted (this one was an actual art school project). Some sharks belonging to The Who’s John Entwhistle; a picture of Jimi Hendrix made entirely from dung; the same again, only this time it’s Gene Simmons.
My favourite of these was probably the portrait of Mohammed Al Fayed composed entirely of pennies, which a sign told you was best viewed from 20 feet away or more. This was not in fact possible without actually leaving the building, so a small crowd of people had squeezed themselves into the very furthest corner of the room in the hope of catching a glimpse of the great man. To everyone else, it just looked like some pennies.
Then there’s a third category which is just, well, stuff. A shoe belonging to Henry VIII. A piece of whale foreskin. Benjamin Disraeli’s toilet (includes portrait of Gladstone, for target practice). Perhaps of greatest interest to Londonist readers would be the original plans for the West India Docks, which can be found, quite naturally, just outside the gallery containing all the torture instruments. (Here, incidentally, there is an opportunity to pose for a photograph with a chastity belt, because what’s more wacky than misogynism?)
“Isn’t that literally just a picture of the Statue of Liberty with no explanation?” my brother-in-law asked, somewhere on the sixth floor. “There’s a lot of space filling going on.”
The further you get through the galleries, in fact, the more it feels like they’re trolling you. Around halfway through, there are two statues dressed up as tourists, one taking a photograph of another besides a real exhibit; this seems to be there for no other reason than to freak you out. Later on there’s a model which claims to show you the overwhelming gravitational field of a black hole. You put a coin in, and it spirals round a few times before falling through a hole in the bottom and out of your life forever.
Elsewhere there’s a section about, actually, I don’t even know what it was about. What I do know is that there was a tailor’s dummy with a button on it, and when you press the button, the breasts inflate. This is an actual exhibit at Ripley’s Believe It Or Not. It’s quite, quite amazing.
It’s been difficult to write this piece for the rather boring reason that I kept instinctively wanting to use the word “museum”. Ripley’s, after all, is not a theme park. It’s a lot of corridors stuffed with exhibits. Museum is the obvious word.
But it’s not a museum: in fact, the company goes out of its way not to call the place one (the only place the word features on its website is in a tweet about it written by a satisfied customer). It has far more in common with the Victorian fair ground. It even has a hall of mirrors.
The place is, in an odd kind of way, enjoyable – but much of the amusement comes from gazing, goggle-eyed, at quite how monumentally weird it is. Ripley’s odditorium would, in fact, make a really quite excellent exhibit for itself.
Photograph of the Trocadero by Dave Pearce, taken from the Londonist Flickr feed. Other shaky camera images courtesy of the author.