Unlocking the vault at the Bakken

An exploration of the West Calhoun museum’s collection

Bakken curator Nick Williams
Bakken curator Nick Williams holds up a bottle of radium water, which was once marketed as a wonder cure for modern life’s many ailments. Photo by Cole W. Williams

The lights turn on and off, row by row, every five minutes in the vault of the Bakken Museum in West Calhoun. 

Polygraph machines, artificial hearts and Frankenstein pop culture memorabilia appear and disappear. The flickering lights help protect the artifacts in a storage facility kept at 66 degrees and 42% humidity to ensure long-lasting preservation.

The legend of Frankenstein
The legend of Frankenstein is central to the Bakken’s collection. Photo by Cole W. Williams

Housed inside the Bakken Museum since 1976, the vault holding the museum’s permanent collection is locked and open to the public by appointment only. 

Visitors touring the vault are led behind a museum floor display and through an ornate wooden door to the entrance, which resembles the door of an antique bank safe. A cement capsule in the middle of the museum, the one-room vault is jam-packed with miscellany.

“The collection is quite narrow in focus, but deep,” said Adrian Fischer, a Bakken curator.

Electrolytic Phantom Torso, made 1951-55
Electrolytic Phantom Torso, made 1951-55: In the 1950s, bioengineer Otto Schmitt set out to build a 3D electrocardiograph to better understand and visualize electrical pulses in the heart. In order to calibrate his prototype, he filled this torso with saltwater and inserted a makeshift “heart” to simulate a human body and adjust his new device. Photos by Cole W. Williams

Inside the vault are nearly 11,000 books, about 2,500 artifacts dating to the 18th century and an assortment of electro-medical ephemera. 

“We want these collections to be used,” Fischer said. “Our mission is to foster conversations that inspire visitors.”

Electropsychometer, made around 1955
Electropsychometer, made around 1955: Chiropractor Volney Mathison used his device, commonly known as an E-meter, to measure the “degree of psychic trauma” of his patients. The machine uses electricity to measure physiological responses of the body and relates them to supposed psychological conditions. In the 1950s, L. Ron Hubbard, founder of the Church of Scientology, began using it in his practice of Dianetics, and Scientology engineers created a modified version, which is still used today.

On a nearby shelf, a violet ray medical appliance, invented by Nikola Tesla, sits unassumingly in a box lined in purple velveteen. Its manufacturers claimed it could cure acne and tuberculosis by pouring volts of electricity into the human body. It was found to be dangerous by the 1950s and swiftly dropped out of production amid lawsuits. 

violet ray medical appliance
A violet ray medical appliance, invented by Nikola Tesla, sits in a box lined in purple velveteen. Its manufacturers claimed it could cure acne and tuberculosis by pouring volts of electricity into the human body. It was found to be dangerous by the 1950s. Photo courtesy of the Bakken Museum

The collection’s focus is on science and medicine as it relates to electricity, magnetism and art. 

Take for example Otto Schmitt’s wire-frame models, which aimed to improve on the electrocardiograph by representing the rhythms of the heart in three dimensions.

Otto Schmitt’s wire-frame models
Otto Schmitt’s wire-frame models aimed to improve on the electrocardiograph by representing the rhythms of the heart in three dimensions. Photo courtesy of the Bakken Museum

Elsewhere in the vault is a fascinating text by the first-century physician Pedanius Dioscorides: a rare facsimile catalog of plants, animals and minerals compiled while he traveled with the Roman army. 

Spread open on a cart in one of the vault’s hallways is the Speculum Naturale, a book compiled in the 13th century by the Dominican friar Vincent de Beauvais — the first volume of his Speculum Maius (Great Mirror) tome, which he intended to be a compendium of all knowledge of the Western world.

“It’s the oldest piece in our collection,” curator Nick Williams said. “There’s a particular power in old books, artifacts and art that helps connect people across time.” 

Radioclast, made 1935-44
Radioclast, made 1935-44: After the newly invented radio started gaining popularity in the early 20th century, some people wondered whether its technology could be used for medical purposes. Generally called Radionics devices, these machines were used to supposedly diagnose and cure over distances.

Holding up a bottle of radium water, Williams asked: “What was this a solution to? This is one of the questions we are trying to ask when we look at something. Radium quickly caught on as a miraculous panacea — a wonder cure for every ailment that modern life caused. People believed it could permanently augment the body, giving it an endless supply of energy since radium seemed to defy the laws of thermodynamics.” 

Fringe science is a cornerstone of the collection.

The goal is “not to point out the inaccurate beliefs people had or the flawed understanding of science at the time,” Williams said. “Instead, we use it to talk about how people at different times often latch onto discoveries that seem to solve the problems society faces.” 

electrostatic generators
In the 18th century, natural philosophers started to find ways to better control static electricity. They produced static charge using electrostatic generators, stored it using Leyden jars, and developed electrometers to measure its intensity. Along with experimentation and entertainment, static electricity was also used for medical purposes. Photo by Cole W. Williams

“[We are] looking back to look forward, thinking, ‘Maybe in future generations, we can make use of these ideas,’” said Fischer, explaining the ethos that permeates the halls of the vault. 

Earl E. Bakken, the museum’s namesake and the founder of Medtronic, began collecting early on in his career and originally housed his collection inside Medtronic’s headquarters. “Bakken encouraged Medtronic employees to make use of the resources,” Williams said.

Bakken, the inventor of the world’s first external, battery-powered pacemaker, drew inspiration from 1930s Frankenstein movies, which he watched at the Heights Theater in Columbia Heights. He combined an interest in electricity and magnetism with an innate drive to heal people and restore life. 

Electrostatic Tightrope Walker, made 1750-1850
Electrostatic Tightrope Walker, made 1750-1850: Electrostatic toys became very popular starting in the 18th century. After being connected to an electrostatic generator or being touched with a Leyden jar, these toys will move in some way until the charge is depleted. This tightrope walker teeters from side to side as if it is balancing on a rope.

“Earl’s legacy is about curiosity and exploring with an open mind,” Williams said. 

As the collection grew, Bakken searched for a new home to house and protect it. The Bakken Museum was founded as a non-profit library and education center in 1975, and by 1981 the construction of the vault was complete. 

Polygraph
Polygraph

A special spot in the world, the museum’s vault is available for students, artists and researchers alike to create their own historical alchemy out of artifacts that date to the mid 1700s and texts that date to the late 1200s. 

In a culture seemingly fraught with waves of uncertainty and doubt, Bakken’s vault reminds us of a piece of advice he gave during a 2004 commencement address at the University of Hawaii: “Never give in to pessimism. Don’t know that you can’t fly, and you will soar like an eagle.” 

Cole W. Williams is an author whose books, “Eukarya” and “Dr. Brainchild & Radar,” are for sale in the Bakken’s gift shop.