A story by Ronke Luke
Ever had one of those days that you plan to spend out and about doing nothing particularly strenuous, in pursuit of something pleasant, when all of a sudden – BAM!, you’re jolted out of your daydream into an unwelcome reality?
I had one of those days.
It was summer, in the 90s. I was in Memphis, TN. With time on my hands and no plans, I decided to visit the Pink Palace - a mansion turned museum. It was once owned by Clarence Saunders, a self-made tycoon, who, in the 1923 stock market crash, lost his fortune and with it the pink mansion he was building. In a nod to Mr. Saunders’ life changing innovation – the self-service grocery store - the Pink Palace holds a replica of his first Piggly Wiggly store; precursor to the modern supermarket.
But it’s the Pink Palace’s other artifacts that shattered my idle wandering. But I didn’t know any of this when I decided a museum visit was a perfect way to while away that day.
The replica Piggly Wiggly store was small (maybe the size of a 7-Eleven) and quaint. It had been a radical departure from the norm when it opened. Instead of handing over a shopping list to a clerk behind a counter who dutifully got your goods while you twiddled your thumbs; in the Piggly Wiggly you picked up a basket and selected your goods yourself. In return for carrying your own load and not being waited on, Mr. Saunders offered lower prices. An incentive he correctly thought would be sufficient to lure the masses to his store. A turnstile and clever floor plan forced eager shoppers in one direction, passing all items on offer and ending with an enticing selection of impulse buys such as sweets at the check-out. The birth of the modern day supermarket and those terrible teasers at the cash register.
The Piggly Wiggly replica store was a delightful step back into the past yet a fully recognizable cousin to today’s supermarkets. Mr. Saunders would be tickled to know that his marketing insight - low prices and the feel of a treasure hunt – prevails in bargain and discount stores today.
The store was a great find for a relaxed outing. Educational and inspirational.
What triggers the “Ah-ha!” moment that brings forth the twist on an existing offering or conjures up something new like Mr. Sanunders’ store.
Lost in these thoughts, I ambled out of the replica store towards the museum’s other exhibits. I don’t recall how many exhibit halls I went into after the Piggly Wiggly, or much of what I saw until I sauntered into a small hall. I peered absentmindedly into a glass case and there is was. Lit up by lights placed to show the contents to their best, the miniature thing registered as familiar but unremarkable at first. Then I read the exhibit tag.
Shrunken human head
Jolted out of my idle curiosity, I gasp and recoiled.
I stepped back to the case. The gruesome little thing pulled me in.
No bigger than a doll’s head, it sat there staring back at me with beady black eyes; probably glass but real enough. The caramel colored skin looked leathery. The features were proportionate to the size. Like a head bonsai.
What unfortunate decision had the head’s owner made that had brought him to this misfortune.
The head did not reveal gender, but I thought it belonged to a “he”. Cultural bias maybe.
I looked again. This time, the eyes repelled me. I turned abruptly and fled for the exit. My mind whirled.
Had he known the people who had shrunk his head? How does one shrink a head anyway? What journey does a shrunken human head take before it ends up in a museum?
I was lost in these racing thoughts as I rounded the exhibit hall exit and collided heavily with a custodian.
“Argh!” the custodian cried steadying himself.
“Sorry! So sorry,” I gushed as I snapped out of my haze. “Are you okay? Really sorry,” I rushed on as the man hadn’t said anything.
Hopefully, I haven’t hurt him and he isn’t annoyed.
“Where are you from?” he asked when he spoke; his voice more curious than angry.
Phew! Personal confrontation averted.
“Sierra Leone,” I replied trying to keep my voice light. “It’s in West Africa.”
“Oh!” the custodian replied, his voice higher and excited. “You could be in there!” he exclaimed pointing to the exhibit hall that housed the shrunken head!
“Uh Oh!” I gasped. I wheeled on my heels and scurried for the Pink Palace door!
- The End -
© 2017 – 2019, Ronke Luke
What's the most shocking thing you've seen at a museum?
Ever had an outing that ended up being more shocking than fun?
We’re Africans. Grew up in West Africa. We like telling stories. It's just part of life. Anywhere West Africans gather they spin yarns that keep the audience riveted.