I am so pleased to be able to interview Chris Semtner, the Curator of the Poe Museum in Richmond, Virginia, about the museum, his work, and Edgar and Pluto, the museum cats. The Poe Museum is one of my favorite spots in Richmond. If you’re visiting the area, this is a must for your list of stops.
Please tell our readers about your role at the Poe Museum in Richmond, Virginia.
I find new ways to share Poe’s works and life with a variety of audiences through performance, film, visual art, and exhibits. If people leave the museum with their own collection of Poe’s short stories or poems from the gift shop, I know I have done my job.
Tell us about Edgar and Pluto and their roles. How long have they been ambassadors for the museum?
Edgar and Pluto are the museum’s greeters and tour guides. Having grown up here for the past five years, they love nothing more than welcoming the museum’s many guests.
How did they get their names?
Pluto was named after the title character from Poe’s tale “The Black Cat,” and Edgar was named after Eliza Poe’s baby boy.
Do they live full-time at the museum? And are they good at keeping the squirrels/birds/chipmunks at bay?
The Poe Museum Cats were born in the garden and live here full-time. At night and in bad weather they stay inside one of the buildings, but during the day you can find them in the gift shop, in the garden, or on somebody’s desk. They are convinced they are excellent hunters, but the bells on their collars usually frighten the birds and squirrels in plenty of time for an escape.
Did Poe have any animals in his life?
Poe grew up with animals, including a dog named Tib and a parrot who could speak French. As an adult, Poe had songbirds and at least two cats. Caterina was a tortoiseshell cat who liked to sit on his shoulder while he wrote. Poe published an essay about his black cat, who impressed him by being intelligent enough to turn a door latch in order to open a door.
How do guests react to the Poe Museum kitties?
Most of the people who visit the Poe Museum seem to be cat people. Guests’ eyes light up when they see Pluto run up to them with a warm greeting. Young children especially enjoy spending time with the cats while their parents tour the exhibits. The best reaction, however, was from a group of sixth-graders who visited the museum after reading “The Black Cat.” As soon as they stepped into the garden Pluto bounded over the ivy to meet them, and one of the kids screamed.
Did Poe write about any other animals besides the raven and the culprit in “The Murders on the Rue Morgue”?
Some of Poe’s stories feature dogs with Tiger from The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym being the most notable. In the comedy “The Business Man,” the con artist bootblack trains his dog to get mud all over people’s new shoes as they approach the shoeshine stand. Poe also wrote about insects in “The Gold-Bug” and “The Sphinx.” Then he wrote an entire book about mollusks with The Conchologist’s First Book. Thanks to “Four Beasts in One,” Poe has the distinction of being the first to write about a Homocameleopard.
Tell us about your research and latest publications.
I started by researching the Poe Museum’s most important Poe relics and what they have to tell us about Edgar Allan Poe’s life and writing process. Along the way, the project grew into an investigation of the turn-of-the-century Poe collectors who competed for each new Poe discovery, like the papers found hidden in his writing desk or the contents of his trunk. I had to know what motivated these collectors—who included an obsessed historian, the founder of an insane asylum, and a Spiritualist who believed Poe had been clairvoyant—to invest all their time and money into amassing hordes of Poeana, some of which was kept hidden until after their deaths. I told the story in The Poe Shrine: Building the World’s Finest Edgar Allan Poe Collection, which will be released on December 11.
My next project is a paper about Edgar Allan Poe’s unintentional influence on the Spiritualist movement for the International Poe/Hawthorne Conference next summer in Kyoto, Japan. I’m also doing some illustration work and some paintings for an upcoming exhibit.
What’s the funniest thing that Edgar or Pluto has done?
During one tour, I joked with a group that Edgar Poe’s ghost might come down the stairs at any moment. When somebody called out Edgar’s name in jest, Edgar the cat trotted down the steps, right on cue, to meet his startled audience.
Could you tell us about the “Unhappy Hours” and the Enchanted Garden?
The monthly Unhappy Hour, which takes place on the fourth Thursday of each month from April through October, is an excuse for people to relax in the Poe Museum’s Enchanted Garden while listening to good music, sampling locally produced food and drink, and catching up with friends. Because it’s at the Poe Museum, we bring out some Poe-themed fun and games as well as the occasional performance or film.
The Enchanted Garden is Richmond’s first memorial to Edgar Allan Poe. Back in 1906, the city could not muster up enough enthusiasm to support a Poe statue, and a decade later, they stood by while his office and home were demolished. The Poe Memorial Association had to the good sense to save the bricks and granite and to use them to turn an old junkyard into a Poe memorial garden based on Poe’s poem “To One in Paradise.” The founders wanted to recreate Poe’s poem in three dimensions and to fill it with the flowers and shrubs from Poe’s stories and poems. This became the Enchanted Garden, a living memorial where people can come to get inspired. In its early days, the garden attracted such visitors as Gertrude Stein, H.P. Lovecraft, and Salvador Dali. Later, Vincent Price, Ray Bradbury, and several other cultural figures made their own Poe pilgrimages here.
What is the coolest item you have in the Poe collection?
I am always impressed by Poe’s waistcoat, walking stick, and penknife. These are the kinds of personal possessions that really give our guests the feeling of meeting Poe face-to-face. History comes to life when you realize that Poe was once a working writer walking the same streets we are and facing a lot of the same struggles creative people encounter today.
Are there any existing buildings in Richmond today where Poe lived or worked?
The Richmond buildings in which Poe lived and worked are all gone, lost for the sake a progress. We do, however, have a few places in which he spent time. The Elmira Shelton House on Church Hill was where Poe courted his last fiancée, and it would have been the Edgar Allan Poe House if he had lived ten more days and married her. On West Grace Street, Talavera is the place Poe gave his last private reading, and the owners through the years have preserved the mantel in the room where that performance took place. Near the Capitol, Monumental Church is where Poe attended Sunday services with his foster parents. Their pew is still marked with the plaque installed there when his foster mother died.
We follow you all on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter to keep up with antics of museum kitties. Do they appear in any of the marketing for the museum?
Edgar and Pluto are not in any of the marketing, but like having their pictures taken for social media.
What upcoming programs do you all have planned in the near future?
The museum’s annual Poe Birthday Bash will take place on January 20, 2018 from noon until midnight. The day promises the opening of a new exhibit as well as a different performance, tour, or activity every hour until the midnight toast in the Poe Shrine.
What’s one thing Edgar and Pluto want folks to know about the Poe Museum?
Edgar and Pluto want you to visit them at the Poe Museum any Tuesday through Saturday from ten until five or on Sundays from eleven until five.
About Chris Semtner:
The Curator of the Edgar Allan Poe Museum, Chris Semtner has written several books on topics including Edgar Allan Poe, visual art, and cryptography in addition to contributing articles to Biography.com, Resources for American Literary Studies, Crime Writers’ Chronicle, and The Edgar Allan Poe Review. Semtner has been interviewed on the BBC, PBS, Travel Channel, Military History, NPR, CNN, and other networks. He has spoken about a variety of unusual, obscure, and macabre subjects to groups around the country and next year will lecture in Japan. An internationally exhibited fine artist, Semtner’s paintings have entered numerous public collections including the Virginia Historical Society and the University of Maryland. He has exhibited paintings at Viktor Wynd Fine Art, London; Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia; and Science Museum of Virginia, Richmond. His next book, The Poe Shrine: Building the World’s Finest Edgar Allan Poe Collection, will be released on December 11 by Fonthill Media. You can see Semtner’s art and learn more about his books at chrissemtner.com.