An emporium of Louisiana culture with a sci-fi twist, the UCM Museum is an hour and one giant step from New Orleans. You just crossed over into the Bassigator Zone.
Touchy, feely, freaky, friendly – John Preble’s UCM Museum could bring out the little child in Donald Rumsfeld. Remember him?
It doesn’t matter. Not when there is a mechanical tornado to spin, a party line to listen in on, and “over 250,102 painted bottlecaps” to count.
John Preble calls his establishment “Louisiana’s Most Eccentric Museum,” and if he hadn’t said that, somebody else would have. Located in Abita Springs, a former resort town north of New Orleans, the UCM (“You See ‘Em”) hatched after Preble and his late wife Ann visited Tinkertown outside Albuquerque, New Mexico, in 1995. Seeing Ross Ward’s art environment, made of woodscraps and junk, unleashed Preble’s inner scavenger and drove him on to artistic industry.
Over the next five years he converted an old Standard Oil station and adjoining yard into a temple of Southern culture, heavy on kitch and leavened with Preble’s irreverent affection:
If you can touch it—Good
If it touches you – Better
If you can touch it at the same time it touches you – Best
Louisiana: Where the Fungus Grows on the Mold on the Mildew.
Inside the Abita Mystery House, Preble has lined up interactive (a.k.a. button-activated) dioramas that recall the region’s recent past. Dolls weave on the dance floor of Rudy’s Rainbow Lounge, cars tilt up for repair at Vic’s Big Wheel, and a joker bobs his head atop a Mardi Gras float.
“The scene honors Airline Highway’s heyday in the mid-20th century,” signage explains, “a party which ended early when Interstate 10 opened in the 1970s.” Think of this as a nostalgia spa – a place to bathe in the cultural marvels of Preble’s youth, c. 1955.
The museum also exemplifies Preble’s very personal twist on all-American business ethics. “The UCM Museum was created with no government grants,” Preble declares in a mission statement. “It is not a non-profit organization nor a tax-exempt business. This museum is a declaration of family enterprise actualized by hard work, independence, persistence and dreams.” Ron Paul Meets RuPaul.
A 61 year old native of New Orleans, Preble had been in and out of several art schools during the 1960s. With a small group of fellow artists he moved to Abita Springs in 1972. “I was the first hippie to come in,” he says, but he was by no means the first eccentric in town. Preble had just arrived when “two guys rode up in halter tops” to greet him. A vacation spot only an hour from the Big Easy, Abita Springs was a haven for all sorts of people — “ex-prostitutes, circus performers…,” Preble says. He and his wife Ann O’Brien decided to raise their family here. O’Brien died of pancreatic cancer in 2006. Two sons are now grown and off on their own.
Preble has stayed and keeps on curating. At the UCM Museum “sprawl” is a compliment. Behind the original gas station (now the gift shop) wooden ramps lead to the Abita Mystery House, its dioramas installed at fourth-grader eye-level. Above hangs a stunning collection of paint-by-number art. Roses, ballerinas, parrots, chalets – they’re all here. (Also Jesus and Lassie, who bear a striking resemblance.) Out back, Preble turned a little stucco building into the sparkling House of Shards. Nearby, a flying saucer has lodged in the roof of an airstream trailer, all that remains of an alien crash-landing some years ago. Preble also moved a 90-year-old cottage to the site, plopping it in the midst of things. Here we found him taking a break from vacuuming to field phone calls and chat with a friend.
“If I were filthy rich, which I am…” he began. That’s a hard line to finish. For John Preble seems to be living without “ifs” — very much in accord with his own fancy and making a success of it. The museum ($3 admission fee) doesn’t support him; rather, he does well as a music and art promoter, with a steady stream of talented folks beating a path to his encrusted door. You’d call him a wild man, except he’s gentle. They don’t make a hooligan head of the P.T.A., even in Abita Springs.
“Everyone is welcome, even your family,” he writes. With children in mind, Preble continues to dish out an emotional creole. History and fantasy, scary and silly come mixed up. But not mixed together.
Let there be incongruity! First walk past the open jaws of a 50 ft. “bassigator,” then find an invitation: “Relax. You Are on the Patio of Compassion.” Yes, Donald Rumsfeld, that goes for you and your family, too!
The UCM Museum in Abita Springs is open 10-5 every day “except major holidays.” Admission is $3, children 3 and under free. Here’s a map.