Dream world: Phila. Wax Museum figment of founder's imagination?

Robert Avery with Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell in a photo posted on Facebook. (That's the real Jannie Blackwell, not a wax sculpture.)
Robert Avery with Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell in a photo posted on Facebook. (That's the real Jannie Blackwell, not a wax sculpture.)
Posted: February 19, 2013

ROBERT AVERY, the founder and president of the Philadelphia Wax Museum, admits that people often get the wrong idea about his museum:

They think it actually exists.

Type "Philadelphia Wax Museum" into Google and you might reach the same conclusion - that it's a real place with wax figures of real Philadelphians, from Betsy Ross to Bill Cosby.

Why? For starters, the news release says so.

"Our museum offers veterans a 30 percent discount on admission," Avery is quoted as saying in a release announcing that the museum is "a reality."

Its Facebook page has 64,500 "likes." That's 8,000 more than the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and about as many as the Franklin Institute, the Mutter Museum, the Free Library and the Academy of Natural Sciences combined.

The page has photos of Avery with Councilman Mark Squilla and Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell. They're holding wax museum shirts, smiling. The 35-year-old East Falls native also is seen posing with Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown at a fundraiser.

A slick video on the museum's YouTube channel features mock newspaper headlines: The Philadelphia Wax Museum Opens . . . Will Smith Wax Figure Unveiled . . . It's Philadelphia's Hall of Fame.

The museum's website includes recent testimonials from people who describe Avery as "highly creative" and "very easygoing" and "a consummate professional."

"Within the Philadelphia Wax Museum, I have seen many examples of his work," says a man described as a programmer from Sweden.

The museum's logo - a red drawing of Benjamin Franklin beside the city's skyline - is all over the Internet. It's been sewn into golf shirts, appeared on a TV news segment, even been carved into ice for a white-tie ball at the Bellevue.

On his LinkedIn page, Avery writes that the museum is "organized and operated exclusively for the relief of the poor, the distressed, and underprivileged and for the advancement of education, historical, cultural awareness for the Great Philadelphia Region, all while lessening the burdens of government."

Great place, right? Quick recap: There is no museum.

"I do agree that some of the info could be misleading, probably due to my zeal and passion for this," Avery, who works for the Navy in Washington, D.C., told the Daily News.

"People often think the museum is open," he said. So he tells them that it is "still in the developmental stage."

But is that even true?

Philly's 'Smithsonian'?

The Philadelphia Wax Museum is truly the museum of the future. It's been generating buzz for years, but the groundbreaking date cited in media accounts always seems to be just around the corner, and the grand opening just around the next one. Summer of 2009, early 2010, late 2011, sometime in 2012.

Where everyone else sees a weed-strewn lot at Columbus Boulevard and Reed Street, Avery sees wax people. He's told the museum's Facebook fans that he has selected the 16.5-acre lot along the Delaware River as "the future site" of the museum. The site, once the proposed location for Foxwoods Casino, has been valued at more than $50 million.

Facebook photos of the site are accompanied by architectural renderings of a gargantuan building on the waterfront, what Avery hopes will be the "world's largest wax museum" and a "strong anchor" for development. He'd also like it to include an IMAX theater.

In fact, none of the hype has any basis in reality. No groundbreaking date has ever been scheduled, because the nonprofit group doesn't own any ground, Avery acknowledged last week. He hasn't talked to the owners of the latest site, either.

In a LinkedIn endorsement last year, Avery wrote that a business plan he commissioned for the museum "has helped me bring many investors to the table as well as bring in thousands of dollars in grants and funding for my project."

Asked about the museum's funding, Avery said it has none. He's seeking PayPal donations on the website. He'd like the museum to house 300 figures, which he says cost about $16,000 each, or about $5 million altogether.

"I am a man of faith, and the story of Noah is a good one for me," he said. "Noah had the tremendous task of building an ark and people laughed at him and questioned him, but when it started to rain, people stopped laughing."

Recommended by fakes

So, who is this guy?

Robert Avery is a bright-eyed, Bible-quoting name-dropper, a sort of grandiose huckster with the admirable goal of inspiring children to chase their dreams with stories of great Philadelphians. And lots of wax, of course.

Aggressive social-networking and creative marketing have enabled the self-described visionary to bring the unfunded project to life by reaching a much larger audience than he could have in 1997, when he conceived the idea.

Avery said he has used his personal funds for Facebook advertising that has boosted the museum's "likes." He also has more than 50,000 Twitter followers.

But Avery's LinkedIn page includes recommendations from fake people, which also appear on the museum's website.

For instance, a man who gives Avery high marks is described as David Kathman, a "Programmer at Pink Mobiliti." But an image search shows that the photo is actually that of Drew Westen, a psychology professor at Emory University. "Never heard anything about it," Westen said, when asked about the museum.

A woman described as Jeanne Lacroix, the "Manager at DynCorp," wrote a positive recommendation about Avery. But the photo is actually of Shamim Ali, an academic adviser at Indiana University Bloomington who doesn't know Avery.

"I'm not that person. It's wrong, whatever they are doing," Ali said. "It's a little uncomfortable, a little awkward. If they get sales out of that picture, then good luck."

Avery said he was unaware that those and other LinkedIn identities are fake. He said that the majority of them are real people and that he intends to remove the phony ones from his LinkedIn profile and the museum website. He said his Facebook likes and Twitter followers are real people, as far as he knows.

The fake recommendations were posted on the museum's site by the Web designer, Avery said. The museum's domain name is registered to Max Rameau, a Haitian-born Pan-African activist affiliated with Take Back the Land, an organization that advocates "local community control over land and housing." Rameau has made headlines in Miami for helping squatters find vacant homes and organizing the Umoja Village shantytown. Avery said Rameau designed the site but is not involved with the museum.

Until recently, the museum's Facebook page included what was described as a possible design for the interior of the wax museum. It was actually a photoshopped version of a Japanese American National Museum design that was lifted from the website of Olson Kundig Architects in Seattle. Asian children in the original design had been replaced with photos of Bill Cosby and Will Smith from his "Fresh Prince" days.

"The alterations are pretty obvious and surprisingly minor. It has been said that borrowing is a form of flattery, so I guess he likes our work," said Olson Kundig marketing director Matt Anderson. "And just to confirm, we are not working on the wax museum."

Avery said a company he'd hired apparently outsourced the work to someone who stole the drawing from Olson Kundig. Avery removed it from Facebook last month after it was posted on the real-estate blog Naked Philly and a commenter noticed that it was not an original design.

Regardless, Avery is moving forward with a project he describes as "the total Philadelphia experience." He said Squilla and other politicians are on board. But Squilla, whose district includes the proposed museum site, told a different story, saying the money needed to acquire the site and build the museum is "astronomical."

"It's really nice and it would be wonderful - I guess," Squilla said.

David Forde, chief of staff for Councilwoman Brown, said Brown recalls meeting Avery but hasn't offered her support.

A higher funding source

Avery, meanwhile, seems to be monitoring every word written about the museum, often appearing in comments sections seeking to direct online discussions.

Last summer, lesbian blog Phillesbian criticized the museum for publicly backing Chick-fil-A's opposition to gay marriage and said its readers shouldn't support the museum or its sponsors. Avery sent an email to Lauren Zumpano, the site's founder and editor, with the subject line: God is funding the Philadelphia Wax Museum.

"Let's see you stop Him," Avery emailed. "It's all about Jesus. Do you know Him?" On Facebook, under the Chick-fil-A post, Avery wrote: "The Very idea of The Philadelphia Wax Museum came from the God I serve."

Earlier this month, Avery reached out to Phillesbian again, this time with a legal threat on Twitter: "Lawsuit against you pending."

All of which perplexes Zumpano. If there's no museum and no money to build one, she wonders, what are they even talking about?

"I find it a little strange," she said. "That was the irony of writing the article. This museum doesn't even exist."

On Twitter: @wbender99

Blog: philly.com/DailyDelco

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