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Period Pieces

Why A Maryland Man Turned His Rec Room Into The World's First Museum Of Menstruation

After freelancing for City Paper for a few years, Brennen Jensen left a perfectly good day job to freelance full-time before joining the paper as a staff writer in 1996. He left in 2004 to join the staff of the Washington-based Chronicle of Philanthropy, where he is currently senior reporter.

By Brennen Jensen | Posted 8/1/2007

Originally published April 4, 1995

Finding the Museum of Menstruation is not all that easy--seeing that it's housed in a modest, unmarked rancher tucked in a New Carrollton subdivision. Unlike Washington's sprawling Smithsonian Institution several miles to the southwest, the world's only museum devoted to the cultural history of menstrual hygiene doesn't have its own personal Metro stop. Visits are by appointment only, and a photographer and I are 40 minutes late for our Friday-evening tour when our headlights finally cut across the correct driveway in the sleepy suburban development.

The museum's creator, a childless, 52-year-old bachelor named Harry Finley, scurries out to greet us. The part-time curator (and full-time government graphic artist) leads us through the side door of his home and then down a narrow, brown-carpeted stairway. The first and only sign for the museum lies at the foot of the stairs: a small placard welcoming us to MUM, the acronymic name for this most unusual of collections.

And it is unusual. Nothing really prepared us for what we encounter in Finley's basement. The wood-paneled walls of the finished room are plastered with menstrual hygiene ads--legions of grinning ladies espousing the virtues of Tampax, Kotex, and a slew of oddly named European tampons and pads. A half-dozen life-size plastic female torsos, clad in sundry menstrual belts, pads, and rubberized panties, dangle from the ceiling on fishing lines. Like-attired mannequins are propped about on tabletops. There are earthenware pad-soaking bowls, New Age Velcro menstrual belts, and a few items whose use in the menses process isn't immediately clear (they look a bit like things you'd strap on Clydesdales). And everything is painstakingly labeled with neat, computer-generated commentary.

It's creepy. It's hilarious. We don't know whether to burst out laughing or run and call the FBI from the nearest pay phone.

Amid it all, though, stands the affable Finley, his blue eyes twinkling beneath a receding ridge of gray hair. Well aware of the humorous and eccentric nature of his undertaking, he is, nevertheless, effusively earnest. Some stern classical music emanating from an unseen radio adds to the seriousness and drama. There is really nothing else to do except go with the flow (if you'll pardon the expression). So while the panty-clad pelvises twist on their tethers and Finley's lanky black kitten--Mack C. Padd--romps about the esoteric assemblage, the journalistic search for answers begins, the tape recorder spins, and the flash bulb winks.

While the Museum of Menstruation has been open to the public only since August of last year, Finley, a Johns Hopkins graduate with a bachelor's degree in philosophy, explains that his fascination with the subject goes back further, to the 13 years he spent living in Europe in the '70s and early '80s. His interest in the graphic arts is what really kick-started it all.

"I was collecting [magazine] advertisements of all kinds, but was struck particularly by the way different countries marketed feminine hygiene products," Finley says. "Certain countries are very open about it, such as Sweden and the other Scandinavian countries."

To prove his point, Finley created a wall display labeled "The Development of Feminine Hygiene Products in European Culture," which includes many graphic European menstrual product ads--some of which might be considered child pornography by U.S. standards. The nearly naked young women in the ads stop just short of showing readers exactly where and how to insert or attach the various hygiene items. (By contrast, a vintage Kotex ad from an American magazine shows only a mother and daughter demurely watering flowers.)

Finley returned to the States 11 years ago with his extensive, pan-European collection of ads in tow, and soon began to collect American ads as well. (Today, his rec-room refrigerator isn't full of soda or beer, but hundreds of vintage tampon ads in cold archival storage.) The idea of building a museum around the collection came later, and grew out of an unpublished comic strip Finley developed. Hesitant to provide details on the comic (for copyright reasons), he explains that it is set in the future, when 99.9 percent of the men in the world have been killed through a "catastrophe." In the plot, it's a female U.S. president who opens a menstruation museum.

"I [wondered] when I was doing the comic strip if there was such a thing, and I started checking it out," Finley says. "I called Kotex, Tampax, and O.B. tampons. I called up their hotlines; it was really funny. I just looked on the side of the boxes where they have 1-800 numbers [to call] if you have any problems with the product--they must have been shocked to hear a man's voice. I asked if they have any kind of [menstrual-product] display or museum or anything like that, or if they knew of any. The response was always the same--there would be this long silence, followed by, `Well, no,' in just this totally shocked tone. They seemed kind of horrified at the idea. It was at that moment that I decided that I was going to do it."

Finley then began floating the museum idea through various channels. Last winter, he produced and mailed his first menstruation museum newsletter, Catamenia (another word for menses). (The free, quarterly publication now has a mailing list of more than 300.) A real shot in the arm came when an anonymous man in the Midwest got wind of the fledgling museum. He sent Finley nearly a dozen boxes of menstrual curios, including the clothing now worn by most of the mannequins.

"He told me he used to do `experiments' and all kinds of stuff with his girlfriend," Finley explains. "He's in his 60s now and gave up with the stuff years ago. He had it all in his attic. [The museum] was an opportunity to unload it all. I didn't even need to pay the postage. He was just glad to get rid of it."

Donations to MUM trickled in from other sources as well, but--antique menstrual items being difficult to come by--replicas were often required. Perhaps Finley's favorite item is a cumbersome-looking contraption called the "sanitary apron with detachable napkin belt," originally sold through the 1914 Sears, Roebuck, and Co. catalog. Finley commissioned Ann Wass, a New Carrollton resident with a Ph.D. in costume history, to re-create the garment, which is basically a menstrual-pad belt coupled with a knee-length rubberized apron worn over the buttocks to guard against leaks, especially while the wearer was seated.

When the collection reached sufficient size, Finley prepared for a museum ribbon-cutting ceremony. He once again contacted the major American feminine-hygiene companies.

"I sent letters to their public-relations people saying they were invited to the opening of the Museum of Menstruation," he says. "You'd think it was right up their alley. Tampax didn't bother to reply; Kotex sent a letter--the opening was on a Sunday, mind you--saying they had a meeting that day."

But several curious people did attend the Aug. 1 opening, including reporters from The Washington Post and Seventeen. Since then, more than 200 people have trooped through Finley's basement, including Smithsonian Institution historians (who provided Finley with some 19th-century tampon patents) and the director of the Menstrual Disorder Clinic at the University of Oregon. Finley has spoken on numerous national radio shows and was recently contacted by a Japanese TV station. Publications ranging from Ms. to Playboy, from scholarly medical journals to the syndicated column "News of the Weird," have discussed MUM. Even the stodgy New Yorker contacted Finley (though the magazine has yet to do an article).

"I live, basically, a pretty dull life. This has certainly livened it up a lot," Finley says.

Of course a large factor in the publicity surrounding MUM is Finley's obvious inability to menstruate himself. To many, for a man to have an interest in the subject is somehow taboo.

"Men tend to have the more extreme reaction [to the museum]," Finley says. "Some men tend to get really mad. They say I shouldn't be doing this, that there must be something wrong with me."

The female reaction is more moderate. Some ardent feminists shun Finley, while others are OK with his choice of hobby. "A woman public-relations person in Philadelphia, who wrote a item about MUM in Self magazine, told me that only a man can do this," Finley says. "She said if a woman [opened MUM] it would be regarded as just another feminist act and so would only be of interest to feminists. Somehow, if a guy does it it brings more attention."

Finley even finds some of the complaints about the museum and the gender of its founder amusing. "About a year ago, Sassy wrote a little item about the museum, after I sent them a flier. They said, `Stick to jock-itch products, buddy.' They thought this was a pretty bad idea," he recalls with a smile.

Finley has experienced one very disturbing and personally painful reaction to MUM: His relatives hate it. "My family has practically disowned me," he says. "They are very, very upset about this. My stepmother told me that someone in the family--she wouldn't identify them--said I had disgraced the family. They never even asked what's in [the museum], it's just the very idea." (Incidentally, Finley is the grandson of the founder of the Miss America pageant).

Fearing a similar reaction, Finley hasn't told his neighbors what he keeps in his basement--though he is quick to point out he isn't doing anything illegal, since the museum is not a business, there is no admission fee, and nothing is for sale. Nevertheless, Finley is seeking a more permanent home for the collection, probably somewhere in Washington.

"My goal is to have it in a public place where people can just walk in," he says. "I don't want to associate the museum with anything medical, because it reinforces that idea that something is wrong with menstruation--that menstruation is a medical [problem]. My ideal would be a museumlike space supported, maybe, by a museum store--a bookstore with T-shirts and all kinds of things like that. And a café. In fact, one of the possible ideas for the name of the café, though everyone says you can't do it, is the PMS Café."

While no one has yet come forward offering a new site for MUM, Finley could soon be getting a hand at the current museum. He says a female college student from the West Coast recently asked to become his intern. "I almost croaked--an intern!" he says, recalling the initial phone call. If the woman does arrive, she'll probably be put to work preparing the paperwork required to achieve official nonprofit status for the museum. And Finley can use the help.

"I'm swamped," he says. "I've got the newsletter, the museum, and I get phone calls every day. I never expected this; it's a real strain."

Bleeding Down Under?

Harry Finley, 65, is alive and well in his modest ranch house in suburban Prince George's County. Stalwart feline companion, Mack C. Padd, remains in residence as well.

Alas, Finley's self-styled Museum of Menstruation is no more. The rec-room collection shuttered in August 1998. Before the lights winked out, and most of the curios were dispatched into storage boxes, some 1,500 visitors had tromped down his basement steps to tour the assemblage of all things related to a woman's monthly visitor.

"The main reason I closed was because, in the four years it was open, I had almost no free time," Finley says, describing the weekend tours and a snowballing media barrage. "It was a disappointment, but I felt my health was deteriorating." Indeed, nine months after the closure, he says he wound up in the hospital having heart surgery "that possibly had something to do with the stress from the whole thing."

Still, he has no regrets and chuckles when pondering how mundanely his life might have unspooled had he never taken the period plunge. Mild-mannered bachelors with penchants for classical music and portrait painting usually don't end up being interviewed by Howard Stern.

Meanwhile, his fascination with a woman's monthly discharge has migrated to the internet, where he maintains a virtual Museum of Menstruation and Women's Health. Many of the vintage and international feminine hygiene product ads that first sparked his interest are displayed here, and there's plenty of menses minutia. (Did you know the Kotex brand of pads and tampons probably gets its name from combining the words "cotton" and "texture?") Finley's take on the topic continues to teeter between a trainspotting obsession and a winking acknowledgment that his enthusiasm is, uh, kinda wacky.

Still, for many, "creepy" trumps "wacky" when it comes to their feelings about Finley's hobby. The retired Department of Defense employee stoutly denies that he ever had any prurient interest in the monthly cycle. (Though over the years he's had to rebuff a handful of men who were turned on by tampons and the rest.) Still, an intrinsic ick-factor was yet another reason the museum was a misfit for a suburban basement.

"It was the wrong place for the museum--the house of a man, and especially the house of a single male," Finley says, recounting how an English couple once took a taxi to the museum, called him when they saw only his trim home, and then roared off when informed that that was the museum.

Finley still clings to his dream that his collection might find a permanent public home in the United States. But hopes are dimming. Numerous institutions, what he will only refer to as a variety of "very impressive places" have contacted him about acquiring the some 4,000 pieces in his collection. It hasn't happened yet. Finley does have a fallback plan if no suitable domestic suitor for his stuff appears. His entire assemblage might not only leave the state, but the hemisphere as well.

"Everything will probably go to Australia," he says. "I've had an arrangement now for many years with the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney. The curator of health and medicine visited me about five years ago--a nice lady. Australians are probably more open to this kind of thing."

It must be said that Finley's persistent and sincere interest in the cultural trappings and tales surrounding the time-of-the-month has won over many of his earlier critics--the feminists who doubted his sexual suitability for the topic, the doctors and academics who cited his lack of formal training.

Well, most but not all.

"I got an e-mail from a woman just the other day," Finley says, somewhat wearily. "She called me a dickhead." (BJ)

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