OK, so it ain’t the Louvre, and it ain’t the Smithsonian. The National Outbreak Museum has no galleries, no gift store, no guides.
And it most certainly has no restaurant.
In fact, the Outbreak Museum, on the 7th floor of a state office building in Portland, Oregon, may be the world’s smallest museum. It’s big enough for about one visitor at a time, depending on whether the founder and curator, Dr. William Keene, happens to be at his desk, which occupies about half of the museum floor space.
But what the Outbreak Museum lacks in size and stature, it makes up in yuck value.
On your right as you enter, look for packages of Austin crackers, Keebler Cookies and King Nut Peanut Butter – just a few of the products tainted with Salmonella during the notorious PCA outbreak of 2009.
On your left, you’ll find a poster and other mementoes from the 1933 Chicago Worlds Fair, when thousands were sickened and more than 100 died of dysentery from contaminated water at a downtown hotel.
On your right, a realistic replica of a Jack in the Box hamburger. There are packages of Nestle Cookie Dough, Trader Joes almonds, Daniele salami, Totinos Pizza, packaged Dole spinach, a jar of Peter Pan Peanut Butter. There are cans of chili linked to an outbreak of deadly botulism. Nearby is a bottle of Odwalla apple juice, an artifact from the outbreak of E. coli blamed on unpasteurized juices.
It’s sort of a gastronomical rogue’s gallery, a Madame Tussauds of food poisoning, a reminder of the myriad foods that have made people sick. It is also the personal collection of Bill Keene, the much-respected Oregon epidemiologist who has spent nearly 30 years tracking toxic microbes through the kitchens, grocery aisles and back roads of Oregon and the Pacific Northwest.
For Keene, each cellophane package or cardboard carton conjures up a notable outbreak of E. coli, Salmonella or other foodborne illness and the detective work it took to track it down.
Most, of course, are replicas of the original–molded plastic hamburgers, photographs of alfalfa sprouts carefully folded into the original package.
In one sense, the museum reflects Keene’s wry humor. When a guy spends much of his time dealing with stool samples and infectious bacteria, perhaps he’s entitled to a little comic relief.
But he’s mindful of the tragedies behind these relics, and Keene cautions that his collection has a serious mission as well. “It’s educational and inspirational,” he says. “We really need other epidemiologists to collect and donate some of the ephemera that helps bring this history of public health to life.”
Unfortunately, each lapse in food safety, each new outbreak adds to the collection. A few days ago, Keene added a replica of a gourmet cheese wheel, reminiscent of the E. coli outbreak traced to Sally Jackson cheeses.
Alas, Keene’s office walls and shelves are full, overflowing. As new relics arrive, destined for posterity, where will he put them?
Keene’s eyes glint as he surveys his small windlowless office. “I suppose the books will have to go, won’t they?” he offers. “I don’t have time to read them, anyway. So out they go.”
And in comes another memento of something we ate, and wish we hadn’t.