Every year I teach a full-year curatorial course to undergrads, that culminates in a fairly large-scale (though small-budget) exhibition. After my sabbatical, I had hoped to curate something on micro-museums, or perhaps even create a micro-museum. But, it turns out that one of the most important components of a micro-museum is time. The time to think about and hone an idea, the time to collect the objects, the time to allow the dust to collect. There was no way that I could create a micro-museum with a group of undergraduates in 8 months without having it look unbelievable, fake, or shoddy. So in the end, we played with the fakeness, creating an exhibition that wasn’t so much a micro-museum (though it was definitely influenced by my travels) as it was a para-fiction, or a fictional tale told outside of the normal vehicles for fiction (such as books or films).
The story was that of Arthur Nestor, a professor at Western (where I teach) who disappeared in 1975 without a trace. I found out about Nestor over the summer of 2014, when renovations at another building on campus had turned up his archive. Not knowing what to do with the dusty boxes of stuff, they ended up with me, the museum studies professor. Students were given the task of sorting through his files, and his collections of puffer fish, magazines, notes, bottled specimens and detritus seemed to suggest that at the very least Nestor was something of an eccentric. His notes clearly showed that he believed strongly in cryptids, in lake monsters that populated the Great Lakes in the region and were under threat from human pollution. Through studying his archive, students suggested that he may have disappeared in 1975 to work with Dr. Roy Mackal, a cryptozoologist from the University of Chicago who was working in Scotland, and in that year had taken the most realistic (to date) photos of the Loch Ness Monster (which were published in Nature Magazine). Of this description, only the last sentence of is fact (and even there, Mackal’s photos were also proven not to show a lake monster). The story in the exhibition was built entirely through “artifacts,” material objects that moved the narrative forward and seemed to hold some kind of truth or authenticity (which just goes to show how shaky those concepts are).
Arthur Nestor’s archive and packed up office, which included “real” 1970s objects, among them a rolodex, several globes, maps, books, slide carousels, notes, photographs, magazines, journals, ashtrays, and on and on, were created entirely by students. So was the “story,” which was told through a vintage map of Loch Ness, a 1975 travel brochure for Scotland, notes (apparently taken by Nestor) on airfares to Glasgow, and copies of Roy Mackal’s real books on lake monsters.
We were also helped by a very kind colleague at the university (not in my department), who was a willing participant in the role of Arthur Nestor, and posed for numerous portraits (including one in the almost untouched Biology Museum).
I’m convinced that the detail of the exhibition captured the imagination of viewers. People wanted to believe that this story was true and that Nestor had existed. And there were also a few tricks. Prior to the exhibition, we created Arthur Nestor’s 1975 office in a room in the front office of my department, took photos (black and white), and then “recreated” the office in the gallery space, with the “1975” office photo pinned up beside it so that people could compare. There were enough differences that it was very convincing. And of course, as many people as there were who wanted to believe, there were just as many who wanted to find the faults in the story (which could certainly be found, once one started looking).
Beneath the Surface: The Archive of Arthur Nestor was possibly the most fun I’ve ever had curating an exhibition with undergraduates. There were times where the line between truth and fiction blurred even for me and I would have trouble remembering what was real and what wasn’t. I received a number of emails from confused members of science departments at the university who had worked there at the time of Arthur Nestor but didn’t remember a disappearance, and we did have a few angry visitors who felt that we were trying to trick them. On the whole, though, it was received as something in the same spirit as the museums I’ve been visiting. An avid collector, a fascinating story, a group of evocative objects: visitors found the space magical even as they questioned it (or not). At the end of the exhibition, we created two memorial plaques to Arthur Nestor. If one searches hard enough on the university’s campus one might stumble upon them. Hopefully they’ll be there for years to come.
See more at the student-created website here.