Museum Mishap #5

Minerva struggled up the stairs with half a mannequin. There aren’t any good ways to carry a human-sized and shaped object. Either you grope the mannequin or the mannequin gropes you. Minerva had resigned herself to the latter configuration. The mannequin’s outstretched hand kept bumping into her chest, which escalated from nuisance to creepy run-in with an inanimate object due to the mannequin being male, based on a real person, and leering. The artist had probably been going for a self-assured smile, but with the half-lidded eyes and emphasized lips made him look pervy.

Minerva readjusted him into a modified bear hug so his hand was safely over her shoulder. She was horrified to realize this nestled the mannequin’s face under her ear. It also meant the unattached arm, the one held on only by the mannequin’s wool sailor uniform was now patting her on the hip as she went up the steps.

“Grope-iest mannequin ever,” she muttered under her breath.

She unlatched the attic access and pushed the two doors as open as far as they’d go. Minerva tucked the sailor mannequin under one arm, which put his nose in her cleavage. She set him on the table and rolled out the portable stairs that provided access to the upper attic.  She stepped carefully on the metal stairs, her weight compressed the springs lowering the rubber feet of the stairs and making them stable.  She opened the half-height door to the upper attic and grabbed the sailor under the arms, dragging him up after her.

His wool uniform snagged on the steps, and she put him in a steadying headlock as she reached up and behind to feel for the funny knob light switch above the door. For the life of her, she couldn’t find it. She was about to give up when her fingers caught the exposed wire and brought it in contact with the metal sign someone had stored in the space between the exposed studs amid the knob and tube wiring.

Electricity arched and jolted through her body. It wasn’t enough to stop her heart, but more than enough to make her fall. She tumbled down the portable stairs and knocked her head on the metal shelving. The mannequin landed on top of her with his hand between her legs.

Museum Mishap #4

Minerva set the butt of the rifle on the floor and tried to shine a snake light into the barrel.

“Is it loaded?” asked Tilly the intern slowly backing away.

“Oh, probably not,” said Minerva. She held a wooden dowel up against the rifle barrel and put tape marking the appropriate length.

“Didn’t you say that you’d found chambered rounds in guns on display?”

Minerva leaned the rifle and dowel against her leg and readjusted her nitrile gloves. “Well, not me specifically, but yes, they found several guns with chambered rounds on display.”


“Well,” said Minerva, “those were handguns and shotguns mostly. Self-defense weapons. This is a muzzle-loaded rifle. The chances of someone keeping it loaded in storage are pretty slim.”

“It must be pretty old.”

Minerva turned over the tag tied to the rifle’s trigger guard. “1880 or so, it says”

“Weren’t you telling me that the older the gunpowder is, the less stable it is?”

“Well, the old primers in WWI era bullets can become unstable and set off the powder. If there’s black powder in here it is loose, probably all damp and won’t work anyway. Smokeless powder is what causes problems, not black.”

The intern took another step back toward the door. “What if someone put smokeless powder in it?”

“Well, they’d be an idiot.”

Tilly made a face meaning “Have you been outside where we live recently?”

Minerva looked at the inventory tag again. “Donated in 1992, last used in the 1920s. Let’s hope Mr. Smith’s grandfather wasn’t an idiot.”

Minerva placed the wooden dowel in the barrel of the gun and slowly lowered it down until it met resistance. It stopped a good four inches before reaching the mark on the dowel.

Tilly stepped back to the doorway and put the door jam between herself and Minerva. “That’s bad right?”

Minerva forced herself to take a deep breath. “That might be the reason they stopped using it. Projectile is jammed.”

“So what are you going to do?” asked Tilly.

“You’re going to go downstairs and call the gunsmith to ask how to clear the obstruction. I’m going to secure this somewhere.”

Tilly scampered downstairs without needing to be told twice.

Minerva sighed and grasped the end of the dowel. As she pulled the dowel out it slipped from her fingers just before the end cleared the barrel. She leaned forward over the rifle trying to grab the dowel, catching it in the chest as the barrel exploded.


Museum Mishap #3

The gas had almost dissipated when they found Minerva sprawled between the racks of charcoal-enhanced portraits. No one knew what she was in the attic for or how long she’d been up there. If she’d fallen a few feet further to the left she’d hit have hit the edge of the Victorian mortuary table. Even in death she’s a bit short of the perfect joke.

Her body is at the wrong angle to have fallen off the folding step ladder. She must have put one foot on the shelving unit to reach something up high. There’s no way to know if it was the box found broken on the floor, or the graniteware coffee pot found under her body. It is clear the box of fire grenades fell some distance and hit the floor with enough force to shatter four of the six globes inside. Carbon tetrachloride inside the blown glass globes would have turned to gas instantly. At the time of the investigation it was impossible to determine if the effects of the gas were enough to cause the victim’s fall, or if the non-cooled attic was at a sufficient temperature that summer afternoon for the carbon tetrachloride to create phosgene gas and poison her.

No foul play is suspected.

Museum Mishap Monday #2

Canned to Death

Minerva stood on top of the ladder, dust mask in place, nitrile-gloved and terrified. There were four very good reasons she’d always avoided going into the small exhibit of Aunt Hattie’s Kitchen and she was staring right at them. Four large Ball jars sat on top of the kitchen hutch their metal caps bulging and powdery with… something. The original contents of the jars was hard to gauge. One seemed to have been cherries. Maybe grapes? Or eyeballs. Whatever it had been it was brown and diffuse in shape now.

The exhibit had been put together sometime in the 50’s. Originally there’d been a female mannequin in here wearing a bad gray wig and gingham dress. It’d been removed by the last director in an attempt to superficially update some of the exhibits. The jars of… God, she really hoped it was fruit. Fruit was the least dangerous thing it could be. Fruit was acidic and unlikely to harbor botulism. The jars probably dated back to the creation of the exhibit, making them at least 50 years past their “Best By” date. She tried not to think about how botulism could be absorbed through the skin.

She took a deep breath and held it as she nudged the first jar forward. The contents jiggled but the jar seemed stable. She held it exactly level and backed carefully down the ladder. Minerva drew a shallow breath through the dust mask when her chest began to ache. She stepped off the ladder and tensed as the liquid in the jar shifted with the jostling movement. The metal cap seemed to be intact, if swollen as she slid the jar on to the table within the exhibit. She really should have brought the folding work table downstairs for this. If the jar started leaking she was going to be cleaning historic brown goo off of a lot of historic silverware.

Minerva tried to breathe normally for a few minutes in the doorway to the exhibit, then collected herself to go back up the ladder for the second jar.

“Just two more after this,” she told herself. This time she tried to keep breathing but it was hard to overcome the urge to hold her breath at the top of the ladder. She thought this one might have been peaches. It had a thick coating of black mold at the top of the jar that indicated the seal had failed. It also meant that the contents weren’t quite as sloshy. She set it on the table next to the first and went immediately back up the ladder. The sooner she finished this the sooner she could go home for lunch.

The third trip up the ladder was easier, and the third jar looked almost entirely dehydrated and fibrously solid in nature. It was quickly set on the table beside the first two. She was half-way up the ladder when she heard the hissing. Minerva turned around just in time to see the cracks form on the third jar and throw her arms over her face as it exploded.

The jar lay in about four pieces on the table and the unmistakable scent of decaying flesh permeated the room. Jarred meat. Maybe venison or elk. Minerva started to head for the door. Shock was starting to set in. She should probably find one of her coworkers before…

She realized there was a stinging sensation in her right arm near the elbow. She turned the arm so she could see and found a shard of glass sticking out of the fleshy part of her arm.

“Oh crap.”

Museum Mishap Monday

So while at Norwescon this weekend Jennifer Brozek managed to convince me to blog more and work on my short fiction muscles by posting flash fiction based around my real life work in museums. There are a lot of ways for history to kill you in a museum and so I’m launching “Museum Mishap Monday” where I will kill myself in fiction through a real life museum hazard. I’ve previously come up with a Gashlycrumb Tinies homage to museum hazards so I know I can write at least 26 of these.

The Room With A Moose

The air conditioner kicked on and disturbed fur on the mounted moose head that dominated Minerva’s office. It was a very old mount shot by a 49er while seeking his fortune in Alaska and then passed down among family members until the head and its fifteen foot antler spread was brought to the museum. Officially the donor “wanted to share it with others” but unofficially his wife was just sick and tired of it taking up half a room in their house. Minerva couldn’t blame the wife. The damn moose was HUGE and its large unblinking eyes were disturbing, especially when they caught the streetlights through the window when she turned off the overhead lights for the night.

Older taxidermy such as this had been prepared via an arsenic soap concoction smeared on the inside of the skin to preserve it and ward off pests. Over time chemicals precipitated out and became a white powder on the surface of the skin and coating the hairs.  A fine white powder that drifted down invisibly from the fur fluttering in the artificial breeze.

Minerva got a phone call from the front desk about a man wanting to discuss a possible donation. She set down her half-sandwich and open cup of tea next to the computer and headed downstairs mumbling, “What’s in the box?” in a panicked Brad Pitt impression. Arsenic dust settled on the sandwich and dissolved into the surface tension of the tea. It wasn’t the first time, nor the last that the tasteless dust settled onto Minerva’s food. It’d been years and now the headaches were getting more frequent. The confusion was harder to chalk up to just lack of sleep or monthly hormones.

The air conditioner turned off before Minerva returned through the narrow door carrying a jar of sand collected from Iwo Jima. She finished filling out the temporary custody paperwork, returned to her desk, and ate the sandwich half in three bites.

The taxidermied expression on the moose above her head remained exactly the same.