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Beyond Belief

The Curious Collection of Professor Rufus Excalibur Bell

“Bold man wanted for unique curatorial position. Small wages and risk of dismemberment, but adventure guaranteed. Apply Higgins Armory Museum, Worcester, Massachusetts.”

Some years ago, those words led me to become the latest in a long line of assistants to the enigmatic Professor Rufus Excalibur Bell, curator of curiosities at the aforesaid museum. I was thrilled to be working for the creator of the world’s foremost repository of dragon artifacts and mythological specimens. Here I could squeeze between shelves holding the giant jeweled dragon saddles of the Ottoman Empire and the jade burial shrouds of celestial dragons from the Han Dynasty. Mornings could be spent cataloging the songs of harpies and afternoons counting the toes on the six speci-mens of griffin. The fieldwork would see me scrambling after the tireless Bell as he collected fairie folk in Wales, or unearthed cuneiform tablets on Mount Kuitarra.

Perhaps it was a message in one of those tablets that prompted his most recent disappearance. “Going for a bit of a walkabout, Hilary,” the note read, “just to clear the mind.” I haven’t laid eyes on him since. Then, as I had been warned would happen, the boxes started arriving.

Sent from around the world, the packages—containing now a frozen yeti, now the head of the Medusa—have been unsettling. A rumor is afoot that Rufus Excalibur Bell, hired by the museum in 1931, has freed himself from the boundaries of time and space.

wings of Daedalus The flying gear Daedalus built to escape Crete looms over Professor Bell’s desk. Mounted above the bookcase is one of the professor’s prized possessions, the head of the actual Jabberwock. The vorpal blade used to sever the specimen is housed in the museum’s arms collection on the floor above.

MULTIHEADED DRAGON The Slavic rarity, known for the fiery wake it leaves in the air, is here preserved in mid-cry. Bell obtained this juvenile specimen in Kraków shortly before the 1937 European Dragon Hunting Moratorium.

EYE OF HORUS Discovered by Bell inside a reliquary near Giza, the left eye of the Egyptian falcon god hangs encircled in gold. Torn out during a battle with his murderous brother Set, it was later given to Osiris to allow that god of light to rule the underworld.

CENTAUR REMAINS One of the professor’s early discoveries, a complete skeleton of a dwarf centaur from Thessaly, shares Bell’s office with the examination tank of a hibernating Hindu snake demigod.

IRISH GOBLINS Close by, you can see a field bag full of goblins captured in Ireland. Their foul language is somewhat mitigated by an eighty-percent solution of helium pumped into their holding domes.

In Storage Marked with cryptic injunctions like “Open Only in Moonlight” or “Do Not Feed,” unopened packages rise floor to ceiling in the department storerooms. Overwhelmed long ago by the sheer volume of material, one museum curator has adopted the rule of thumb: “If it’s not glowing or salivating, stack it for later.”

FOUR WONDERS A mummified Aztec priest shares a crowded shelf with the giant scorpion tail of the chimerical Assyrian Pazuzu, a Japanese Uwibami dragon head, and a mounted specimen identified by Bell simply as “Last Pair-Bonded Atlantians.”

DRAGON TROPHIES Mounted above unopened shipments, a Blue Celestial from China and a Green Snaggle-Toothed Wyvern from Wales are just two of the department’s many dragon species. It was the latter specimen that escaped from the museum basement in 1933 and ate Bell’s first assistant before setting fire to a second-floor lavatory.

MINOTAUR’S HOOF The acquisition of this appendage was preceded by much practice in an Iowa corn maze.

FRESHWATER MERMAID Because of a reputation for luring men to their death with sweet songs, this temptress was delivered to the museum in a soundproof terrarium. The professor’s admonition, “KEEP LOCKED,” was heeded only after a docent attempted to drown himself in the open tank. Rescued in the nick of time, he explained, “The melody just drew me down.”

ARMORED PRESSURE SUIT Designed by Bell for the celebrated Atlantian expeditions of 1934–35, this apparatus attests to the professor’s engineering prowess. The famous message “Haul up, bloomers getting wet” was sent in Morse code from a helmet-mounted telegraph key that Bell operated with his nose.

Comings and Goings Sightings of Professor Bell continue, sometimes in his office, sometimes in one of the department’s subbasements. Witnesses report seeing a tall man with a distracted air, perennially in his mid-forties. He was last spotted just after the department opened its doors to the public last year: “Keep your fingernails clean, stay off the cigars, and follow the evidence,” he is reputed to have told Emily Bickerstaff, age five.

Beyond Belief: The Curious Collection of Professor Rufus Excalibur Bell is an exhibition of objects created by Hilary Scott, F87, F92, and curated by Linda Woodland, G06. It runs through 2011 at the Higgins Armory Museum, in Worcester, Massachusetts. To see a video of Hilary Scott at work, click here.

HILARY SCOTT, F87, was a lecturer in political theory at Tufts when he began making things to amuse his children. For the past ten years he has been an artist full time—except for summers, when he is photographer for the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Tanglewood. He created more than a hundred fanciful sculptures for his latest exhibition at the Higgins Armory Museum, on which his article is based. Running the show is LINDA (PADHI) WOODLAND, G06, assistant curator of exhibits at the Higgins. Woodland holds a master’s in art history and, fittingly, is an authority on monsters in medieval art.

  © 2010 Tufts University Tufts Publications, 80 George St., Medford, MA 02155