WASHINGTON – When the Maryland Science Center asked Harry Finley to loan items from his private collection to a women’s health exhibit that is scheduled to travel across the country, the New Carrollton man was thrilled.
The science center’s serious interest is not the sort of reaction that Finley usually gets to the Museum of Menstruation he houses in his wood-paneled basement.
The collection — which includes up to 4,000 advertisements, 450 cartons of commercial napkins and tampons as well as specialty menstrual garments like panties and aprons — more often draws quizzical looks and “nasty” e-mails, said Finley.
His hobby has even drawn the ire of his own “very male, very military” family since it opened in 1994.
But Finley’s collection has also lured 1,500 visitors — 95 percent of them women — since he opened his home for weekend tours by appointment and it has earned endorsements from medical professionals and academics alike.
“Finley is not a crackpot or pervert,” said Dr. Philip Tierno Jr., who sits on the board of Finley’s museum. Tierno, who has dedicated almost 20 years to toxic shock syndrome research, said the museum presents a “more intelligent view of a bodily function that every woman in society has.”
“Many men who don’t appreciate the concept of menstruation, some of these are scientific men and medical men,” said Tierno. “If males menstruated, there would be a museum of menstruation.”
But so far, the only such museum is in Finley’s basement.
The closet curator said he is not surprised by the mixed reactions to his collection. In fact, he started MUM — his tongue-in-cheek nickname for the museum — because of the silence and discomfort that surrounds a perfectly natural biological function.
“Americans are so concerned with prudery and prolonged Victorian attitudes,” Finley said. “It just seems so silly, all this exaggerated silence about this.”
The full-time graphic designer said his own interest in the “culture of menstruation” began when he was in Germany in the 1970s and began to notice different countries’ approaches to advertising feminine hygiene products.
Finley, 56, began collecting feminine hygiene ads from different countries and eras after his return to this country in the early 1980s. His collection grew as manufacturers and others learned about his unusual interest and began sending packages of feminine hygiene products.
One of most exciting donations — he remembers saying, “Oh, my God, yes,” when asked if he wanted it — was five cartons of materials that Tambrands Inc. was looking to unload when it was acquired by another company. The cartons contained 450 boxes of tampons, from America and around the world, dating back to 1936 and research file folders on Tambrand competitors.
But even Finley’s moment of glory was colored by the public’s response to his collection. Before he opened the boxes, he worried that they might contain a bomb. He even debated how to open the boxes from a distance, before curiosity got the better of him.
Finley acknowledges that his project is “a mixed bag, but…worthwhile.”
“I just have this nagging feeling that if anyone is going to do this, it’s going to have to be me,” he said.
Finley may well be the only man for the job.
A spokeswoman for the Smithsonian Institution said she was “a bit cynical” of Finley’s claim that the museum had twice asked for his collection. And Matt Neitzey, a spokesman for the Prince George’s County Convention and Visitors Bureau, said he did not know how to comment on the museum in his county or if he even wanted to do so.
But the professionals Finley has recruited for his board of directors are quick to defend his project, as well as a man’s right to run it.
The Maryland Science Center’s Beth Morris-Weiss called Finley’s collection a “sort of a one-of-a-kind resource … If you take the time to talk to Harry, you learn he has really valuable information.”
Barbara Czerwinski, a nurse on Finley’s board, said, “We’re dealing with a closet topic, but one we should know about.”
Now, Finley hopes to bring the topic out of the closet — and out of his basement.
He has temporarily closed his doors to devote his weekends to finding a “permanent public place” for the museum. A brochure Finley created announces that “the future MUM will be the center for information about menstruation for the world. Besides the museum, it will have a resource center, museum store, conference room and temporary exhibit space and a cafe.”
Toward that end, he has recruited a board of directors that includes Tierno and Czerwinski, who is co-designer of space shuttle hygiene systems, as well as a slew of students interested sociology, history and women’s studies.
Besides the credibility it adds, the board is a crucial first step in securing the non-profit, tax-exempt status Finley needs to run a public museum. He has sent queries to local universities about housing his collection on a temporary basis.
“I just have this fantasy of someone being so taken with the idea of my museum that they’d be as enthusiastic as I am,” he said.
But even those taken with Finley’s collection have trouble shaking the stigma attached to it.
The science center’s exhibit on women’s health borrowed some of the tamer parts of Finley’s collection: booklets from the 1950s through the 1990s offering advice to pre-teen girls about their first period. Morris-Weiss believed the booklets showed how attitudes surrounding the topic had changed over the years.
But, to Finley’s dismay, attitudes may not have changed enough. Exhibit organizers sectioned off that part of the show with a pink stop sign reading: “Please be advised. This area contains material about anatomy, puberty, sex and sexually transmitted diseases.”
Which is another reason that Finley dreams of his own museum.
“That’s a real shame, it contributes to the shame, the taboo,” he said of the Baltimore exhibit. “At my museum, people are going to be confronted with a menstrual hut.”