The Museum of Low Taste

Finding collectibles was fun and serious at the same time
Bonnie Maslin, a clinical psychologist, relies on her sense of humor when she decides what to buy at yard sales and when she calls the collection the Museum of Low Taste.

A beautiful waterfront house on a bluff in Springs may be an unlikely place for a museum, but suspend your disbelief. This is no archive of ancient artifacts nor a paean to priceless paintings. No, this is the Museum of Low Taste, or MOLT, a good-humored and astonishingly expansive assemblage of midcentury kitsch — ceramic figurines, lazy susans, and commemorative items, among other things — a proud and highly concentrated collection that numbers in the thousands.  

Bonnie Maslin, the curator, and her husband, the late Yehuda Nir, amassed the Museum of Low Taste almost entirely from yard sales over some four decades. From “the driveways of many people in East Hampton,” she said. When asked what instigated their quest, she had a simple answer — or non-answer.

“As my uncle would say, ‘Y is a crooked letter.’ There’s no answer, really, to that question. I would say it was just that the spirit moved us. My husband, unusually, was into it as much as I was. Often, there is a ‘mixed marriage’ where one wants to chase around and the other wants to sit in the car or not be there at all. But we felt it was a sport — it was our favorite outdoor sport.” 

The myriad items in the collection, which also came from yard sales on the North Fork and from a few shops that carry collectibles, were mostly manufactured in this country and Japan during the postwar occupation. Dr. Maslin, a clinical psychologist, said she knew nothing about the manufacture or value of each piece, “except that it captured our whimsy.” 

The apparently whimsical pursuit, however, was connected to a profound effort to understand the human condition. Dr. Nir, a psychiatrist, was the author of “The Lost Childhood,” a memoir of his life in Nazi-occupied Poland that The New York Times called “a sobering reminder of the personal toll of the Holocaust” and “a harrowing portrait of one child’s loss of innocence.” Dr. Nir hid from the Nazis in plain sight, disguised as a Catholic in Warsaw. The Museum of Low Taste, Dr. Maslin mused, “was his attempt to recreate that gap in his own childhood, because his was really a lost childhood.” 

To that end, figurines are often placed on shelves with books by one or both of them. “The Lost Childhood” is surrounded by Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, “because he was lost with the big bad people, who are running after him,” Dr. Maslin said. “Loving Men for All the Right Reasons,” a book on which the couple collaborated, “is about single women,” she explained. “Not Quite Paradise: Making Marriage Work” is similarly illustrated by appropriate pieces in MOLT’s offerings.

Complementing the figurines is a collection of some 55 lazy susans. “First of all, I think it was a very anti-woman thing, besmirching of women,” Dr. Maslin posited, “saying that Susan was lazy, therefore Susan didn’t have to go to the food, the food would come to Susan. I just think it captured something that was going on in the ethos of the country. This might have been the postwar effort to put the war behind people. The postwar middle class was very aspirational and, I think, trying to deal with the trauma. There goes the therapist in me.” 

Several of the lazy susans came not from East End yard sales but from the Love Field Airport in Dallas. “I had a consulting job for a number of years in Texas,” Dr. Maslin said. “It was a very intense job: I would go from Thursday night to Sunday night and work, work, work, but would take a break. When I would come to Love Field, they would say, ‘The lazy susan lady from New York is here,’ on the P.A. system.”

Another collection, albeit a departure from ceramics on the second floor of the house, was recently and dramatically pared down. “We don’t have a few of everything; we have quite a few,” Dr. Maslin said, referring to what she called church-lady handbags. “These are all 1950s-era, too.”  

Downstairs, in a finished basement, first-time visitors realize that everything heretofore has been preamble. “Welcome to MOLT,” Dr. Maslin said. Figurines in the hundreds, plates depicting President and Mrs. Eisenhower and the Kennedy family, and more lazy susans are here, along with what may be a one-of-a-kind and surprising souvenir. From the Elvis Inn in Jerusalem, it is a plate on which the King is commemorated in English and Hebrew. 

The collection is fluid: Dr. Maslin has donated entire segments to nonprofit organizations, and individual pieces or sets have also taken their leave. “If somebody comes in and admires something, I usually send them home with it,” Dr. Maslin said. “I had a charming little girl here who just fell in love with some of the things, and I sent her home with them. She was really delighted.” 

MOLT may not be a museum in the traditional sense, but Dr. Maslin, and Dr. Nir before her, would often guide visitors through its rambling collections, spread among the house’s three levels, and discuss the jammed displays.

 “My friend Audrey Flack is a wonderful artist,” Dr. Maslin said of the sculptor and East Hampton resident. “Her daughter is very funny, and she made underwear,” a garment collected for the Museum of Low Taste’s still-fictitious gift shop, for which visitors can make a proud affirmation: “I survived the tour.”  

The view of Gardiner’s Bay from Bonnie Maslin’s house in Springs, seen from the bathroom, offers respite from the intensity required to take in the countless ceramic figurines, lazy susans, and collectibles at the Museum of Low Taste, or MOLT. Even the bathroom is part of the museum.
The Museum of Low Taste contains commemorative ceramics, including some depicting President Kennedy and his family and Elvis Presley on a plate from an inn in Jerusalem.
Ceramic figurines and lazy susans are complemented by what Bonnie Maslin, the curator and tour guide, calls “church-lady handbags,” below.