|Plan Your Visit|
|Research and Collections|
|History in the Making|
Beginning February 16, 2013
Tuesday through Sunday
11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Closed Monday & Holidays
Closed: Easter, Memorial Day, July 4th, Labor Day, Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Eve Day, Christmas Day, New Years Eve Day, New Years Day
(Beginning February 16, 2013)
Children (5-17) $3.50
Seniors (65+) and Students w/ID $5.50
Under 5 Free
(2 adults & their minor children)
By Kimberly Louagie
Abraham Lask said this to Houdini in 1898 at a time when Houdini was just one among many entertainers in the dime museum line up. That year, Houdini and his wife Bess performed some twenty shows a day on museum platforms to audiences more interested in the “freaks,” bearded ladies, midgets, giants, Siamese twins, and other curiosities than them. Lask tried to pep up Houdini and convince him that he was destined to play bigger venues. Lask offered to represent Houdini and book him in more prestigious variety theaters. Houdini did not hire Lask, instead he persevered for another year on his own until he was discovered by vaudeville tycoon Martin Beck.
Houdini never again played in dime museums after meeting Beck. Dime museums were places for the up-and-coming, and worse, for those who would never become famous. Museums, though, have changed since the time of Houdini. They are no longer considered places of lowbrow entertainment, but rather repositories of cultural heritage.  Museums have also become one of the most popular entertainment attractions in the country. People are more likely to visit a museum than attend a sports event or even a theme park. Houdini’s billing in today’s museum means that he has made an indelible mark on society.
The History Museum at the Castle opened a new exhibit on the life and times of Houdini on June 1, 2004. The exhibit covers about 1,700 square feet in two galleries on the second floor of the Museum in Appleton, Wisconsin. It cost approximately $650,000 and will stay open to the public for ten years. An on-line virtual show and educational programming complements the Museum exhibit. The new exhibit replaced another installation on Houdini.
The new exhibit talks about Houdini as an icon of 20th century “modernism” and its corollary “Americanism.” Houdini as the immigrant child shed the old world traditions of his ancestors to become a “modern” man of technology, media, and the arts. The exhibit will explain how Houdini’s genius lay in his ability to adapt and assume identities that placed him on the cutting edge of a changing world. Each reincarnation - Erich the Great, King of Cards, Handcuff King, and Master Mystifier - responded to the desires and wants of his fans and built his superstar status. The idea of changing identity inspires the new exhibit’s title—a.k.a. Houdini.”
“a.k.a. Houdini” addresses the major epochs of Houdini’s life. His early life in Appleton is central to the story. Houdini’s earliest memories of this “idyllic” community helped shape the rest of his life. He and his family lived in relative comfort, the young Houdini (a.k.a. Ehrich Weiss) attended school, played with neighborhood children, and watched a town become a modern city. His father was a respected rabbi and his mother took care of a growing family. Houdini’s connection to the city ran so deep that he called Appleton his hometown, even though Budapest, Hungary, was his place of birth. When the Appleton Jewish community fired Rabbi Weiss, he moved his family to Milwaukee, then to New York City, always living in poverty. Houdini and his brothers took jobs to pay rent and buy food. Houdini’s drive, at least partially, was born out of his past as the son of an impoverished family. He embellished his early childhood and connection to Appleton, not only as a publicity stunt, but also to reminisce about a place with good memories. Appleton’s impact on the most famous magician of all time justifies the Museum’s continual investment in time, space, and money to this man’s story.
Other parts of the exhibit address Houdini’s association with the religion of Spiritualism, his years of struggling as a magician in small theaters, and his rise to superstardom in vaudeville as an escape artist. Visitors are challenged to answer questions such as: who inspired Houdini’s magic, why did Houdini become so popular, and what were the secrets to his trade. Interactives, models, and multimedia displays allow visitors to figure out how Houdini performed some of his escapes. This highly interactive approach targets a general audience, families, school groups, adult groups, and out-of-town visitors. The exhibit provides an environment of learning through fun and engaging activities.
The approach taken to the new exhibit is based in part on front-end surveys of the Museum’s membership (including Houdini Historical Center and Outagamie County Historical Society members). Respondents to the surveys rated their interest in Houdini’s escapes, his stages of life, his personal relationships, and historical forces affecting his life and career. A majority of respondents favored a heavy use of interactives and wanted to know how Houdini performed his tricks. The most popular description of Houdini was as “showman” and the most common reason for remembering Houdini was his contributions to magic.
The team involved on the Houdini project included: Kimberly Louagie (former Curator
of Exhibits), Matthew Carpenter (Deputy Director and
Curator of Collections), JoEllen Wollangk (former Director of Operations), Jane
Woolsey (Curator of Education) and Ryan Schaub (Exhibit Preparator). The
team worked closely with an exhibit company called Derse Museum Group.
Derse has an impressive 700,000 square foot building in Milwaukee, Wisconsin,
where the project was designed and fabricated. The company houses
shops for wood and metal work, theatrical painting, sculpting, and plastics
fabrication. Its designers are known for turning the ordinary into the
extraordinary. They are well versed in graphic design, computer layout,
silk-screening, photo mounting, and detailing. Derse is dedicated to providing
visitor-focused exhibits that will withstand continual use over time.
Its clients include the: Milwaukee Public Museum, Wisconsin Historical
Society, America’s Black Holocaust Museum, and Harley Davidson Traveling
1 Although legitimate museums did exist during Houdini’s life, dime museums were found in most larger communities.