After he slew his enemy—a warrior in another tribe who killed his brother and was, according to ritual, justly punished—the Jivaro Indian re- moved his victim’s head and then retreated into the seclusion of his hut to do his work.
After boiling the head so that its skin was supple and pliable, he sliced into the back of the man’s neck, gliding his knife along its nape, from the decapitation wound to the crown of the head, pulling skin away from skull and removing the hard white shell that encapsulated the man’s brain. That, too, was removed, along with everything else that once served to give the man life, and the Jivaro then filled the cavity with hot sand and pebbles, slowly and persistently rotating the head to ensure even drying, He repeated the process for days, until the head was completely dry and had shrunk about five times its normal size, until it was no bigger than the Jivaro’s fist—though its features remained remarkably intact.
He used cotton to sew the head’s eyes and lips shut. When he’d finished, he presented his trophy to his tribe, and his people celebrated his victory with a bountiful ceremony of dancing, drink, and orgy. He displayed the head in his hut until a buyer—some Westerner fascinated with his tribe’s headhunting tradition—offered him a musket in exchange.
Hear Ladonna Osborn remember traveling with her parents, T.L. and Daisy Osborn, and ruminate on world art.
Eventually, the trophy—and others like it—would find itself on a shelf in Tulsa, in a museum owned by a world-traveling evangelist. Children visiting the museum on school field trips would wander its halls, oohing and aahing at the thousands of artifacts on display, but invariably they would return to the three shrunken heads. They’d stare collectively in grotesque wonderment, unsure if the faces were real or manufactured for the explicit purpose of scaring the hell out of them.
Tommy Lee “T.L.” Osborn opened The World Museum in 1963 to display the art and artifacts he’d spent 15 years collecting while on mission trips in other worlds, where he preached the gospel and healed the sick by the thousands. Housed in the T.L. Osborn Evangelistic Association’s headquarters—a white, domed structure that stood just east of Peoria Avenue and south of Skelly Drive until 2007, when it was torn down to make way for the Highway 44 expansion—the Worlditorium displayed Asian and New Guinean tribal art, African and Native American tribal art, Oriental art, European porcelain, collectors’ cars, and European and American furniture, clocks, and musical instruments.
The building had seven arched alcoves; inside each was a map of a continent,composed of faces of people from that land, and a collection of artifacts associated with that place.
The center’s lobby contained, at the time, the “world’s largest vinyl carpet,” according to a Tulsa World article, which represented the Earth’s surface and carried the message: “Go ye into all the world and preach the Gospel to all creatures.” It was what Osborn had done nearly his entire life.
Born in 1923, Osborn was one of 13 children raised by poor parents near Pawnee. Born again at 12, he hit the road three years later with evangelist E.M. Dillard, eventually landing in California, where he met a woman with a similar background. Daisy Washburn, one of 11 children born to poor California fruit farmers, received her salvation at a young age. The two married on Easter Sunday 1942—he was 18, she 17— and they began traveling the American West preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ.
In Portland, the Osborns met a missionary who told them of the great need for the gospel in India, and so they sold all their possessions and moved there, determined to win Indian souls for Christ.
“They were not prepared,” said LaDonna Osborn, their daughter, an evangelist who followed in her parents’ footsteps. “They didn’t have a clue about India. They thought India was full of pagans, and that’s the last thing that’s in India. It’s a nation of devoutly religious people; we know that today. They went and had a very disappointing experience. They were doing all they were taught to do: praying, fasting, loud preaching. And nothing worked, and they did not know how to convince people of other faiths that the Bible really was the word of God, that Jesus really was the son of God and that he gave his life purposefully for the sins of people and that he’s alive today to continue his work through believers.
“So my father and mother did a very smart thing. They came home.”
They continued their U.S. ministry until they met a missionary who inspired them to return overseas, this time to Jamaica, where they spent 17 weeks preaching and praying. The Osborns healed 90 blind people and cured countless others from deafness, deformation, cancer, and other diseases, LaDonna said. She was 9 months old then, traveling with her parents and older brother from country to country.
Their philosophy was simple: “Just teach the people the promises of God, explain to them why they can expect to be healed, and pray for them—and let Jesus do the rest.”
The native missionaries they supported were so grateful that they would bestow on the family their most precious art and artifacts—and Osborn would use his “collector’s DNA” to purchase and commission art.
“I think he had such a eye for art—he’s a real artist. He has lots of talents in that way,” LaDonna said. “I think, because of that, many of the things that were given to us were really quality. In later years, they would purchase things that needed restoration.”
One of Osborn’s commissions still stands in LaDonna’s office at the ministry’s current headquarters near Fifth Street and Memorial Drive in Tulsa. The statue is life-size and standing on a pedestal and depicts a man with a wood bit in his mouth, held in place by chains wrapped around his head. Even more chains entangle his hands and feet, and he wears no clothing save a loincloth.
“The purpose of this was to typify humanity in the bondage of sin if they do not have Christ,” she said. “Now, I can tell you that when I have African-American friends who come here, that is very offensive. I need to put a plaque on it or something. We are not affirming slavery. We are making a spiritual statement.”
Osborn expanded his museum in 1972, adding a second floor, thousands more artifacts, and renaming it The World Museum/ Art Centre. Oklahoma Governor David Hall and Tulsa Mayor Robert LaFortune spoke at the facility’s ribbon cutting. The 50,000-square-foot museum housed more than 5,000 artifacts from 100 nations.
A Tulsa Tribune reporter called its contents “a collector’s fantasy of global memorabilia” that included “totems, gongs, swords, drums, fetishes, talismans, graven images, idols, and grotesques; music boxes from Bavaria, Black Forest mechanical villages, monster African and Burmese statues carved from trees.”
“And temple lions with rose quartz eyes, and instruments for a Siamese orchestra Compleat, and chandeliers from palaces in Spain; a faun discovered in the rubble of Pompeiis [sic].”
There were also boats—a 57-foot long New Guinean war canoe and a 37-foot New Guinean banana fleet boat—that required partial dismantling of the museum to get inside the upstairs gallery.
Each artifact was accompanied by a placard that described it and its origin and also included some tidbit that, LaDonna said, “would inform people about the cultures of the world or about the religions of the world or about the need for help, for hope, for rescue.”
Osborn told the Tulsa World before the opening: “It has long been our contention that many of the world’s fears and prejudices among people of different nationalities could be alleviated, if not eliminated, by bringing artifacts from the different cultures of the world together, so that we might study them and learn to understand and sympathize with people who have outlooks and backgrounds different from our American and European heritage.”
The museum received 6,000 visitors a month, but its founders, and the ministry that made them jet setters, remained a mystery to most Tulsans. Osborn, though comfortable in leading thousands of foreigners to Christ, remained a recluse in his hometown, often refusing media interviews.
“It was a paradox to have such an amazing collection in the hands of simple missionary kind of people,” LaDonna said. “The art community could not understand how we got a hold of these things, how we were able to restore them and present them in such a way.”
She remembered visiting France with her family and wandering the courtyards outside of the museums, where her parents would find “marble statues that were cracked or growing moss” and buy them at a “reasonable” price, restore them and display them in Tulsa.
“Now, coincidentally, after the museum was liquidated, France actually passed laws disallowing the export of their fine art pieces. They came and took a lot of their things back.”
But she said the family never ran into any legal issues when exporting or importing fine art or artifacts—including the shrunken heads and ivory tusks so huge “you couldn’t believe that an elephant could be big enough to carry them around.”
LaDonna said the purpose of the museum was to endow the ministry. “In my father and mother’s logic, in times to come it might be difficult to finance the evangelism programs or to make payroll or to add on to a building—to do anything necessary, so they thought, we could sell a piece of art. So that was a good idea at the time.”
The ministry was—and is—financed through private donations, which were, until the late 1980s, solicited through a magazine the Osborns published titled Faith Digest.
But T.L. was always tight-lipped about his ministry’s finances. In 1977, two Tulsa Tribune reporters wrote: “Not even Osborn and his associates claim to know how much the museum and its displays are worth. They do know, however, how much money is solicited by the foundation. But they refuse to make that figure public. In fact, due to the foundation’s ‘church’ status, not even the Internal Revenue Service can find out. Osborn’s foundation has been estimated to receive $6 million-$8 million per year, but officials would not confirm that figure.”
“We’ve never had debt; we’ve never gone into debt for anything,” LaDonna said. “We have survived. I should say thank you Jesus. I believe if you do what God wants done, he helps you.”
In 1981, T.L. Osborn closed The World Museum and liquidated most of its assets. The museum had become more than just a set of curios inside ministry headquarters; it had a full-time staff, guards, guides, and a curator. It was a major tourist attraction for the region and had garnered notable national attention from folks in the art world.
“One day my mother and father had lunch with the head of the Oklahoma Tourism Council—whatever the proper term is— and she was just commending the museum, expressing what an attraction it had become in Oklahoma, and that it was the finest collection west of the Mississippi—next to the Smithsonian, the finest world art collection. And she looked at my father and she said, ‘You have spent this portion of your life collecting these amazing artifacts; now you must give the rest of your life guarding and preserving it.’ ”
Deciding they weren’t willing to give their lives for their collection, the Osborns called a meeting of the museum’s board of directors following their lunch and announced their decision to liquidate it and put the proceeds earned back into the ministry.
They spent months preparing their collection for auction by Christie’s, an event that lasted three days in September 1981. Collectors from Tulsa and elsewhere pored over the collection, its contents ranging in price from $20 to $100,000.
A tag sale on the museum’s first floor was opened to everyone and offered knickknacks and smaller items—chopsticks, cow skulls, an elephant’s foot, old engine parts, plaster statues—at attractive prices. In the upstairs gallery was what the Tulsa Tribune called “an exhibition so classy that the catalog required for admission costs $20,” where a painting by Gustave Dore, bronze and marble sculptures, and a bronze Louis XIV clock were auctioned at prices in the tens of thousands.
The auction fetched $2 million and was followed by another a year later with Dean Kruse, famed antique car auctioneer from Dearborn, Indiana—who, in 2010, had his license suspended and his auction house revoked on complaints of fraud—at the helm.
“Auction day begins and strangers come,” LaDonna said, “art lovers, people who have no interest in humanity per se, certainly not the work of God … and to just watch those things that have been gathered over a lifetime be hauled out, piece by piece, piece by piece. That was not easy.”
The building was gifted to Victory Christian Center, which housed its Victory Bible Institute there, though the ministry retained a portion of it for storage space.
Daisy Osborn died in 1995. LaDonna acts as vice president and CEO of Osborn Ministries International and is founder and overseer of the International Gospel Fellowship. Her father, at 88, is still active in the ministry, traveling regularly until just last year.
The ministry continues to publish literature in 132 languages and films in 80 languages. T.L., Daisy, and LaDonna “have probably reached and led more unreached souls to Christ in non-Christian lands, and may have witnessed more great healing miracles, that any other family in history,” their website claims.
The hallways at Fifth and Memorial are plastered with photographs that document the far reaches of their ministry and its every capacity—except for The World Museum. There are a few remaining pieces of art in the office, but most of what the family reserved from the auction—some paintings by Dore, marble sculptures, Oriental art—remains in the Osborns’ home.
Even the building that once housed the place has been covered up by concrete and steel. Nearly all that remains of the Osborns’ World Museum are the Christie’s auction program, a couple of newspaper clippings and the memories of Tulsa kids—vast student bodies of them—who recall visiting the place and gazing in amazement at its treasures—including three tiny, hollow heads with sewn-up eyes and mouths.
“It’s a little gross, but we never were ashamed to show what really is humanity,” LaDonna said. “We live in a culture that protects us from anything ugly, anything oozy, anything crazy, anything that’s vile. We’re protected from it …
“We’ve never tried to shelter particularly the Christian community from those things because they need to be reminded: This is what people do who are lost, who are hopeless. They’re trying to make appeasement for whatever’s going on in their lives—the evil, the hatred, the cruelty people will do to one another.”