Materiality in the Lost Museum

(my talk to the Brown University Commencement Forum on The Lost Museum installation)

“The Lost Museum” is about the lost Jenks Museum of Brown University, but it says interesting and important things about museums more generally. Mark Dion’s artist’s sensibilities provide a useful perspective about the relationships of artifacts and stories in the museum.

I’m going to focus on one aspect of the installation that’s fundamental to the work of museums: materiality. Museum curators obsess about objects. They’re what make museums special. We use them to preserve culture, tell stories, and understand nature. We worry about them a lot, too: taking care of them, keeping track of them, protecting them, trying to understand what they mean, what stories they can tell.

This installation plays with the materiality of things in museums. Museum artifacts are material things, but we want them to be more than that: we want them to live forever, to tell all of the stories from their long lives in the world, and to represent their type: to somehow be both themselves and the Platonic ideal of themselves. Objects resist this. They decay. They get lost. They aren’t always what we think they are. They are stubborn things.

Let’s contrast the materiality of the three spaces. I’ll consider first the overabundance, the riot, of artifacts in the office space, artifacts that tell the story of a zealous curator enthusiastically trying to collect and preserve and understand the natural world. Next I’ll look into the room on the other side of the doorway to see the ghosts of those objects, recreated from their descriptions, and now waiting quietly in the purgatory of a museum storeroom. And finally, the actual objects that he did collect, shown here in their natural state of decay – as unnatural as that is for a museum. I hope that these three installations might help us understand something important about the nature of museums.

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The office

The office is a psychological profile of John Whipple Potter Jenks, an individual, but also a psychological profile of many curators of natural history. I’ve visited curators’ offices at many museums, and this space captures something of the way that many curators live with artifacts. It’s an overabundance of artifacts, things next to books about them next to the tools used to understand them. Jenks’ room is layered with things – hundreds, maybe thousands of things. (There are things in there that you can’t see, hidden behind other things.) The room is recreated based on some very good sources – including a wonderful article one of Jenks’ students wrote, and a painting of a taxidermist’s workshop from about that time – but that not what makes it seem so real.

What makes it real is a psychological coherence. There are objects in there that stand for stories based on Jenks’s life – stories that no visitor can be expected to know. But they are more than just in-jokes for historians of the Jenks museum. You might not know the story those objects tell, but the strangeness of some of the objects tells us that there are stories; their truth to Jenks’ life makes them coherent. Together, they bring the space to life.  Consider that picture of a cow, from Jenks’ work teaching agriculture; or that copy of Darwin on the floor, or the bible on the desk, or the two canes near the chair.  These are objects that tell a story.

The office space, in short, has a backstory. A backstory is usually used to lend depth and credibility to a factional narrative – it allows the author, or director, to make a story seem true. Here, the backstory is true – it’s based on research into Jenks’ life– but the material representation is false; the things are not Jenks’ things. Still, the backstory makes them coherent, makes them tell a true story, or a convincing one.

(I’ve worked on many period settings in museums before, and they’re very hard to do. Mark Dion likes to say he’s an artist of shopping, and it’s true: this room is a triumph of flea market and antique mall collecting.)

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The Storeroom

Let’s move next to the Museum storeroom. Here we see pieces created by 80 different artists. We gave the artists a short description of objects that had been in the museum, culled from annual reports, newspaper articles, and photographs – we called this “curatorial poetry” – and they re-imagined the objects back into existence, following some very detailed instructions about size and color. Objects were turned into words, and then words into objects. Turning objects into words – describing museum artifacts – is one of the skills of the curator. Creating objects from ideas is one of the skills of the artist. We’ve merged them.

One of the instructions that we gave the artists was that the objects they created had to be white, or off-white. This, of course, provides a visual continuity to the space. But more important, it calls attention to the fact that these things are ghosts; the ghosts of museum objects, their poetical souls saved only by the chance description by a curator or registrar or museum visitor and the imagination of an artist. But in some sense all objects in museum storerooms are ghosts, objects that have lost their context, their place in the real world.

But it’s not only the individual objects, as delightful as they are, that I want to call attention to. It’s the overall feel of the space. The contrast with the materiality on display in Jenks’ office could not be greater. That was a riot of artifacts telling a single story; this space is full of artifacts in repose, artifacts with no real connection with one another, no story connecting them anymore, other than a chance gathering here in this building a century ago.

Museum storerooms are a kind of waiting-room for artifacts, a kind of purgatory. They are preserved from the worries of everyday life with perfect environmental conditions – but with nothing to do. They are waiting for their new life in display and teaching and research to begin. They have an odd calm. For them, time stands still.

There’s that same odd calmness of objects-in-waiting in the Jenks museum storeroom. It’s reinforced by the white color, and by the strange bedfellows: a shoe next to a trilobite next to a peacock. Those odd juxtapositions are common in museum storage, part of what makes behind-the-scenes tours of museums so fascinating.

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The surviving artifacts

Finally, let’s look at the actual artifacts that survive from the Jenks Museum, in the long case in the lobby of the building. Here we see the materiality of real things. But it’s not the usual story of materiality frozen in perfection that museums aim at. These artifacts have not been provided that ideal storage conditions and protection from decay museums promise. Far from it. For these objects, time did not stand still. These are museum objects that have been – against all the rules – allowed to follow their natural course of decay. These are artifacts that most museums would never exhibit.

The installation calls attention to this by its organization. The artifacts are arranged by degree of decay, from those that are closest to they way they should look in a museum, on the left, to those that are reduced to dust, or close to it, on the right. This is a very odd way of arranging artifacts. Museums – especially natural history museums – are about category and context, and this is an arrangement that breaks every rule of taxonomic organization. Animals are mixed with ethnographic things. Geography, chronology, disciplinary boundaries: all ignored. The objects are beautifully arranged – Mark is a master of that – but not in a way that any museum would arrange them. This calls attention to the very nature of categorization and display, of course, and that’s one of the charms of this part of the installation.

Furthest to the right in the case are all that remains of some of the objects that have decayed altogether, objects that have disappeared. What remains are only the museum tags, the words used to describe these objects. They have lost their material presence, and moved into a Platonic plane of ideas. Have they transcended the physical, turning themselves into curatorial poetry? Or have they become ghosts, even more shadowy than those artifacts in the storeroom, not quite real, just reminders of once was?

And that raises some of the biggest questions about museum collections. What is the most real? What is the most true? What tells us more: the curator’s description, with its accession number and donor credit? The object itself, rescued from the real world, sitting forever on a museum storeroom shelf? Or is truth, reality, found in the dust that remains when object follow their natural path, the fate of all earthly things, retuning to the dust from whence they came?

Life and Death in the Museum

All museums, and especially museums of natural history, are in a fundamental way about life and death. So fundamentally, perhaps, that we don’t even think about it very much. Of course we have to kill animals to preserve them. We have to remove artifacts from their active lives to save them for future generations. Art must be about its own time, but also about all time; it must be eternal.

Jenks was a scientist, a teacher, a taxidermist, and a museum curator. These are all fields that are about cheating time, cheating death. Scientists try to find the underlying, eternal ideas. Teachers are about the next generation. Taxidermists do their best to make animals seem lifelike forever. Museums promise artifacts eternal life.

This installation calls attention to that promise, and calls it a lie, or at least, too simple. Ideas survive, maybe; the words survive, the things themselves disappear. Only art can conjure things – a curator’s life, lost artifacts – back to life. Only art can revive, can re-imagine the lost museum. That’s what all museums do, or try to do, and what they hide from the public: the art they use to try to preserve life, to cheat death. 

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