This may look like a sedate and unremarkable, if pretty, house in a leafy neighbourhood in the Texan city of San Antonio. However, two features suggest there might be more to it than initially meets the eye. One is a hand-painted sign half-hidden in the foliage outside, announcing the existence of a museum. The other hints at something stranger – a toilet bowl and cistern parked in its back garden, used as a big porcelain plant-pot, green blades poking out over the bowl’s rim.
In fact, this is the home of San Antonio’s Toilet Seat Art Museum, created and run by the wonderful Barney Smith who, when a couple of friends and myself visited him a while ago, was 94 years young. He keeps his museum-collection in a corrugated iron garage. It’s a big collection and he has a small garage, but Barney has managed to cram the former into the latter in Tardis-like fashion.
When we telephoned him to say we’d arrived – we’d made an appointment to view the museum a few days earlier – Barney crossed his back garden with the aid of a Zimmer frame, unlocked the big garage door, swung it back and propped it with a stob. And then it seemed that Aladdin’s Cave had opened, an Aladdin’s Cave of toilet seats.
Now I should clarify something. This is not a museum of toilet seats per se, not one of antique toilet seats, or exotic toilet seats, or unusual toilet seats. What Barney has done over many years is take a huge number of toilet seats, or more precisely, toilet-seat lids, and decorate them according to different themes. The theme might be a country, city or state, or a profession, or an organisation, or a special occasion, or a newsworthy event. And he works on each seat with the artistry of a medieval craftsman engraving, gilding, inlaying, embossing and enameling the front of a medieval shield.
At the time of our visit, he mentioned that he was currently working on six new toilet seats to add to his collection. I can’t quite remember how many seats he said he’d already completed, though for some reason the number ‘1172’ is lodged in my memory.
The interior of the garage is absolutely dense with the things: lining the walls, propped along the floor, dangling from the roof, suspended along rails in tightly-packed rows. Entering it is like venturing into a congested pocket of rainforest, one where the leaves are all big, solid and shaped like loo-covers. When he leads his visitors inside, such is the clutter that Barney has to swap his Zimmer frame for a walking stick, which handily doubles as a pointer when he’s indicating the more notable items in his collection.
Despite the sheer number of exhibits, each one seems to have its own identity – largely due to the bewildering range of bric-a-brac Barney has used in decorating them. I saw seats adorned with action figures, badges, baubles, beads, buttons, cards, car number-plates, CDs, chains, cell-phones, cocktail sticks, coins, corkscrews, computer keyboards, coral, crosses, dolls, electronic circuitry, feathers, keyrings, keys, Lego, marbles, medallions, medals, miniature flags, neckties, notes of money, pebbles, penknives, pennants, photographs, rocks, rosettes, scent bottles, sections of plumbing, sew-on patches, shells, smokers’ pipes, spectacles, stained glass, stationery, stones, surgical instruments, taps, toy cars, toy trains and watches.
Barney is also an accomplished artist and calligrapher and many of the seats, in part or in their entirety, are emblazoned with his drawings and / or inscribed with his handwriting. Indeed, such is the aesthetic effect that you soon forget that what you’re looking at are, essentially, the top parts of latrines.
About the only exhibit I remember seeing that had a connection with an actual toilet was one bearing a souvenir that a visitor, an American soldier back from service in Iraq, had given Barney one day: a chunk of porcelain allegedly salvaged from the ruins of Saddam Hussein’s personal ‘khazi’.
In his time Barney has worked as a plumber, electrician and fireman. Looking at the exhibits here, and thinking of the many skills that were necessary in fashioning them, I’m sure there are a dozen other professions he could’ve successfully turned his hand to. He’s also a bit of a publicity hound – clearly, he keeps an eye open for any opportunity to promote himself and the museum. Thus, the garage comes equipped with a television set and an old VCR, on which he plays footage of his appearances on TV over the years, on programmes like the Tonight Show, Offbeat America and the BBC’s All Over the Place. As a thank-you for the coverage, those shows have been honoured with their own toilet seats in the collection.
While I didn’t go to the Toilet Seat Art Museum with the intention of scoffing, I expected to have a good chuckle about it. Where I come from, at least, toilets are supposed to be funny – hence the expression, ‘toilet humour’. Yet I went away feeling impressed and oddly inspired. This was partly because of the time spent in Barney Smith’s company. Despite his advanced years he seemed as alert, vivacious and energetic as a man a third of his age. Why, the following week, he told us, he was planning to pop up to Tennessee and visit Dollywood, the theme park devoted to the mighty Ms Dolly Parton.
And the sheer variety of things displayed in his garage made me admire his curiosity and enthusiasm for the whole rich tapestry of life. I particularly admired the way his work showed respect for and gratitude towards those many groups of citizens who keep society ticking over and glued together – all those many professions, services, institutions, associations, sports clubs, social clubs, faith groups, youth groups and so on. You name them, he’s got a toilet seat dedicated to them.
Tellingly, at a time when the bile, bombast and general ghastliness of the Trump-Clinton race for the presidency have acted as the worst possible advertisement for America, it strikes me that Barney and his eccentric but charming little museum are an advertisement for the very opposite, for America at its best. Both the man and his creations seem to embody the virtues of a nobler America, virtues such as neighbourliness, civility, loyalty, positivity and all-round decency.