By: Adam Evers
Ben Lovatt, the curious mastermind behind Toronto’s SkullStore and the Prehistoria Natural History Centre, has enough stories to fill countless lives. Specializing in ethically and sustainably sourced natural history products, the SkullStore is truly one of its kind in Canada. The SkullStore preserves and sells an assortment of morbid oddities including skulls, fossils, taxidermy, minerals, and even human remains, which are ALL real. We recently got the chance to catch up with Ben, who offered a deeper look into his unique business and some of his favourite specimens.
What is your main goal for the SkullStore?
The main goal I’m working towards is permanence. Growing up with severe childhood illness and spending my life coping with my disabilities has made me acutely aware of my mortality and the fleeting duration of all human lifespans. What I am trying to do is build a museum that has the power and permanence to far outlive you and I. Right now we’re hopping around between rental locations, but I intend for our next move to be a long-term home. I want to purchase, or even build, a home for my collection that will allow future generations to access, admire and be inspired by the treasures I am collecting today and my future curators add to our catalogue.
We want to stand alongside the ROM and other institutions as a Canadian contribution to the global academic community, safeguarding the treasures of the past, while publishing original science that pushes forward the collective knowledge of our mankind. Every day of my life is dedicated towards this goal. There are many elements to this growth and vision of academic immortality, and it does include everything from summer camps/after-school programs and the ongoing documentary production about our work to travelling the world to excavate specimens for future study.
What are your favourite specimens in the store?
Most of my favourite specimens are what you would expect – deformed taxidermy mounts, a shrunken sloth head, my Egyptian child and animal mummies, etc. I do have something a lot less flashy, that is pretty incredible though – some of the very first tools ever made on planet Earth! They look like slightly sharpened rocks, and that’s exactly what they are. 2.2 million years ago, in Olduvai Gorge, one of our ancestors, Homo habilis, found itself in a dangerous place and in a worsening climate. Standing just over 4ft tall, we were pretty low on the food chain, primarily surviving on foraging and scavenging. Most remains of habilis have been killed or scavenged by lions, sabertooths or hyenas! To make matters worse, the lush forests of central Africa were drying out, and changing to grasslands and it was getting harder to scavenge the rapidly-drying carrion we found on the plains.
What is the weirdest thing you’ve had in your museum?
I’ve got “tame weird” stuff like a fossil bird that still has thumbs on the wings and teeth in the beak or a dinosaur egg turned into a dazzling geode. In terms of “oddity weird,” you’d probably mean something like the piece I sold to Zak Baggans (Ghost Adventures) the ghost hunter. It was a Changit trophy rack from the Ifugao peoples of the Philippines, featuring the skull of a man who had been killed in tribal warfare and then cannibalized, roped to a board alongside the skulls of the two boars that were served alongside his body in the victory feast. The entire piece was charcoal smoked black and smelled like a mixture of bacon and nightmares. I believe he put it on display at his museum on the West coast in the US.
If you could sell anything to anyone, who would it be?
The Pope. I’d love to sell that dude a shrunken head… I’d just request that he makes a fancy pope hat for the little guy.
You’re one of the main suppliers for the film and television industries in Canada. What are some of the projects that you’ve worked on?
Oh man, it can be hard to keep track of all of the movies and productions. If somebody’s doing film production in Canada and they want something weird, my phone is going to ring! I’ll have to just pick out the highlights, as the last time I counted it was over 40 major productions in the last couple of years. To casually name a few of the sets we’ve helped decorate (or costumes we’ve helped adorn): Vikings, Frontier, Hannibal, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, Umbrella Academy, What We Do In The Shadows, Star Trek: Discovery, and American Gods. We’ve done a ton of work with American Gods over the years, but the highlight for me was when they asked to use my taxidermy raven as the stand-in and model for Odin’s ravens. It’s pretty epic to greet Huginn and Muninn every time I go to work! It was also a nerdy dream come true to have some of my work featured in Star Trek. When I was an elementary school kid, hypnotized and inspired by the bold and dramatic intro to Next Generation, I never expected I would ever be a part of that wondrous universe on the other side of the screen.
If you could supply for any film or series, what would it be?
It’ll sound pretty boring compared to the horror movies (like IT), or sci-fi shows (like Star Trek) I’ve supplied for, but I’d honestly love to be a part of a BBC or Discovery Channel documentary. I’ll never get tired of working with the fiction-centric entertainment industry, but it would certainly be an honour to be featured (or host) a high budget documentary series. I’d love to travel the world and see where the treasures of my collection actually come from! Who wouldn’t want to visit Siberia and help excavate a woolly mammoth, before flying down to Egypt to explore the tomb and treasures of an ancient pharaoh; where every stroke of paint and scratch of a chisel was carefully planned to ensure they would ascend to the heavens as an immortal god?
What is your favourite sci-fi and horror film that no one ever talks about?
What if my favourite less-known sci-fi is also one of my favourite less-known horror movies? Well, to horror buffs like you, I’m sure it’s a pretty well known movie… but I’d say Bad Taste by Peter Jackson (Lord of the Rings, Frighteners, Dead Alive). A low-budget film, from my homeland of New Zealand, featuring aliens invading Earth so they can harvest humanity for intergalactic fast food? What more could you ask for in a movie?!
Visit Ben at the SkullStore and look for the man dressed as a T-Rex, archaeologist, or wearing a shiny suit with a raven on his hat. You’ll leave wishing you were still roaming through thousands of his curiosities, learning about each artifact in a fun and exciting way.