At the Crab Museum in the seaside town of Margate, England, Tereza Hynkova, 24, stopped in front of a display case, and started to giggle.
Inside was a diorama featuring models of nine crustaceans, including a coconut crab, usually found on tropical islands; a decorator crab, which covers its body with algae for camouflage; and the knobbly horrid elbow crab. The models were anatomically accurate, but the realism ended there. One of the crabs held a pint of beer between its claws. Another clutched a cricket bat. A third was dressed as a suffragist with a “Votes for Women” sash draped across its shell.
A sign above the diorama explained: The species live in different parts of the world so “it would be misleading to depict them in a realistic natural setting.” Instead, the museum’s staff had put the models into a diorama resembling a 1920s English town.
At a time when museums around the world are grappling with how to attract new audiences, with visitor numbers still flagging since the coronavirus pandemic began, the two-year-old Crab Museum’s use of silly humor in its exhibits and wall texts is proving to be a success. It now attracts around 80,000 visitors a year and recently won an award for its social media presence, which it uses to sell jokey merchandise including T-shirts and tote bags.
Much of the humor is childish, and aimed at young visitors. A section on mating habits, for instance, features a photo of crabs midcoitus, emblazoned with the word “censored.” Other elements are more involved. To illustrate how the animals “molt” — a process in which a crab pulls its body out of its shell so that it can then grow a larger exoskeleton — the museum has a bizarre video of Ned Suesat-Williams, one of its founders, struggling to crawl out of a suit of armor backward, without using his hands.
The museum’s text and graphic-led exhibits try to teach visitors about crab anatomy, mating habits and the importance of decapods to marine ecosystems, but also use crabs as ways into discussing bigger issues, including environmental threats and the inequities of capitalism and colonialism.
The more serious displays include postage stamps from former British colonies that featured depictions of crabs, displayed next to wall text discussing imperialism, and a cupboard labeled “Truth Inside! Do Not Open!” that contains text asserting that capitalism has warmed the planet and is threatening ecosystems.
Ned Suesat-Williams, one of the museum’s founders, said in an interview that making a museum funny was a “risky business” — visitors might not get the jokes, after all — but that “everyone learns better when they’re laughing.” Humor provides “a breathing space, where you can talk about difficult topics like climate change without making visitors think the world’s about to end,” he said.
Staff at some of Britain’s more renowned scientific institutions are paying attention to the Crab Museum’s approach. Chris Stringer, of the Natural History Museum in London, said in an email that the museum’s silly approach leads to learning “by stealth.” It “teaches more in a small space and short time than many others with far larger budgets,” he added.
Laura Pye, the director of National Museums Liverpool — a body that includes major art and history institutions — said the museum was one of the funniest she’d seen “in a long time” and a good example of how to make “fairly heavy scientific material accessible.”
In 2019, Ned Suesat-Williams, 30, and his brother Bertie, 33 — who both have a background working for children’s magazines — plus their friend Chase Coley, 32, decided to create a museum that could discuss political issues that they were concerned about, while still engaging young people. They eventually settled on crabs as the museum’s focus because of Margate’s seaside location. Plus, Bertie Suesat-Williams said, crabs were “funny and weird”
The founders — who had no previous professional museum, or crab, experience — devoured books and documentaries on decapods, then developed the museum’s exhibits based on what they found most interesting.
Coley said that they saw themselves as the “bad boys” of Britain’s museum world museum because they did not have a vast collection of objects, seriously displayed. Yet the museum recently secured its first loan item — a 150 million-year-old fossil of a shrimp — and the founders are now taking courses, including in preservation, partly so they can apply for government funding.
“Cosplaying as a museum seems to mean we’ve become one,” Coley said.
On a recent Sunday, not every visitor was charmed by the Crab Museum’s irreverent approach. Mia Gregory, 29, said that she didn’t find the crab diorama amusing because it contained a crustacean dressed as a police officer brandishing a baton in its claws. This aggressive portrayal of the police felt “a little bit political” for a museum about crabs, Gregory said. (She later added that she was a police officer.)
Other visitors seemed delighted by the bright and silly displays and graphics.
Jono Twohey, 43, said that he had recently taken his two sons to the vast Science Museum in London, but that hadn’t “captivated” them for as long as the Crab Museum.
As Twohey discussed the exhibits, one of his children — Finn, aged 9 — shouted for his father’s attention. “Daddy, look at this!” Finn said: “It’s a crab’s eye! It’s disgusting!”