Road scholar

Always on the move, Denny Daniel’s “Museum of Interesting Things” gathers artifacts and spreads learning

  • Denny Daniel uses ageless 16 mm projectors to play vintage shorts films from the early 1900s to the 1970's. Photo: Esti Grifel

  • Denny Daniel with a telescope from the mid-1800s. Photo: Bob Krasner

  • Denny Daniel demonstrating a camera obscura during a New York University lecture on the history of photography and film.

One of New York City’s most idiosyncratic museums has no permanent home. Instead, the several thousand items in Denny Daniel’s “Museum of Interesting Things” reside throughout the city in several secure locations.

A history buff and collector of ephemera since his Forest Hills childhood (“lots of toy cars and comic books,” he says), Daniel’s collection ranges from the ridiculous (Dr. Scott’s Electric Flesh Brush) to the sublime (a 17th century Tibetan prayer book), from the historic (parts of an Enigma code-breaking machine) to the quotidian (a fuel iron), to the just plain weird (a 19th century tooth key, used for extractions during the Civil War) or antique (19th century telephones, typewriters, cameras or Victrolas).

After years of “show and tell” at parties and museum and gallery shows of his own art films, he took the plunge two years ago and developed interactive, themed demonstrations/exhibitions of his collection for schools. He and some 20 staff and volunteers research, assemble and produce hour-long shows using collection items from categories he has labelled Science, Math, Literature, Medical, Toys, Music, Household, Photography, and the newest, “Eureka! The History of Invention” as a way of demonstrating the evolution of an idea or concept.

“It’s a mitzvah job” Daniel says, “reaching kids with learning in a visceral and hands-on way instead of remotely from a book.” During each show, he explains and shows artifacts (such an early portable phone in a suitcase from the 1970’s or an Edison Victrola) and lets the kids inspect each one.

“They’re enthralled.... It’s a gateway drug to official museums” he says. “It encourages curiosity and ingenuity.” Besides going to grammar and middle schools, he’s done shows at the Queens Hall of Science, The Intrepid Sea Air Space Museum, the Coney Island Sideshow Museum, libraries and senior centers.

Along the way, Daniel continues to add to his collection and develop custom themes — with often surprising results.

“I was asked to do a suffragette show for women’s history month,” he recalls, “and I said yes, with no idea how. I thought ‘I’m doomed’ but I have this bizarre luck, when I start to look.” He calls rare finds or iconic items “a Holy Grail” and he found one for his “Suffragette City” show. “It was a voting machine from 1920 that still has President Harding’s name in it. It was a tester machine that was used to teach women how to vote.”

Although he’s “on the road” several times a week, he still finds time for monthly events in SoHo he calls “Secret Speakeasies.” For the Halloween Secret Speakeasy, he explained and demonstrated 19th century items such as a 100-year-old Magic Lantern, and showed vintage film shorts on a 1960s-era projector. During intermission visitors could examine a spooky array of antique artificial limbs, sinister scissors and pliers used in medicine or dentistry, and booklets on spiritualism.

The size and scope of the collection is causing Daniel and his staff to look ahead for a home for big or important pieces, including a time-recording device from the 19th century. He’s talking with several upstate municipalities about finding a permanent home for his collection. “We want it to go on no matter what happens to me, but the priority remains reaching the maximum number of kids. The whole point of the museum is to inspire. The secret of the museum is that we can do anything. America has that spirit, that spirit of positivity.”

Although he’s happy to share his knowledge and answer questions, there is one question he’ll never answer: How much an item cost or what it’s worth. “I want kids to be curious about the item, not about how much it cost,” he says. “Once money and the price of items come up, it changes the focus. It’s not great because it’s expensive. It’s great because it’s interesting.”

The next Secret Speakeasy is scheduled for Jan. 28 at The Loft, 177 Prince St., between Thompson and Sullivan Streets.

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