The John Feathers Map Collection

This lovely video is an interview with Los Angeles Public Library map librarian Glen Creason. He tells the story of a house in Los Angeles whose owner, John Feathers, died, leaving behind a massive collection of more than 10,000 maps, street guides, atlases, and globes. The house was slated for destruction, and Feathers had left no will. It was only because the real estate agent had read an article written by Creason and contacted him, that the collection was saved. “Everywhere I looked in the house, there’s maps,” Creason says. “It’s almost like he wanted to collect every map ever made.” There’s more on the back story here. And the article on the Beat Generation map that Creason mentions in the interview is here.

Lost Museums

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In May 2015 I went to the Lost Museum symposium, a conference focused not on the founding or expansion of museums, but on their disappearance and decay. The symposium was organized around the Jenks Museum, a natural history museum at Brown University founded by John Whipple Porter Jenks in the nineteenth century. Though it was popular at the time, the museum’s popularity declined after Jenks’ death (he actually fell down the stairs of the museum and was found at the bottom), and in the mid-twentieth century the collection was dumped in the nearby Seekonk River. 92 trucks of artefacts and specimens (including the walrus in which Jenks was rumoured to have slept) were thrown away.

Over the course of 2014, students in the MA in public humanities at Brown researched the museum, collected as many original artefacts as they could, worked with the artist Mark Dion to recreate Jenks’ office, and built an art installation that included the “ghosts” of the lost artefacts. It was a truly fantastic conference. The papers were great: my favourites were Joanna Ebenstein’s discussion of an upcoming exhibition at the Museum of Morbid Anatomy (which I visited last year) and Maia Wright and Kate Jarboe’s talk about their project “the George Bush Library and Museum Museum.” Essentially, Jarboe made herself the unofficial artist in residence at the George Bush Library and Museum, and created a series of satirical and thought-provoking art works while there. No one questioned her presence, seemingly in part because of her authority as an artist in residence (which of course, she wasn’t – the ruse was maintained solely by her wearing a t-shirt that said “Artist in Residence”). I also enjoyed Andrew Yang’s talk about growing plants from the seeds found in the bellies of birds donated to the Field Museum in Chicago, and Alison Loader’s tale of the raucous battles over the installation of telescopes for tourists in Edinborough in the 19th century.

I found out about the symposium at the last minute, and made a split second decision to go, but I’m so glad that I did. It seems that the future of conferences lies in leaving behind the dry and tiresome presentation of papers and more in these kinds of multi-scalar considerations of themes and ideas. I hope that they’ll have another one – surely there are plenty more lost museums!

IMG_4794This made me laugh.

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A detail from the Rosemary Trockel installation at the Brown University Library

IMG_4744The RISD Nature Lab (students are allowed to sign out specimens!)

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The Jenks Museum installation – objects recovered from other collections (and the corner of a portrait of Jenks himself)

IMG_4771IMG_4761The Ghost objects

IMG_4764Mark Dion’s installation of Jenks’ office

IMG_4774Performance at the Annmary Brown Memorial Gallery (with the distrubing Partition of Poland painting in the background)

IMG_4775The gallery just happens also to be a mausoleum. The flowers are replaced once a year (on Annmary’s birthday?), and dry out over the course of the next 364 days. It’s a little creepy.

The Disappearance of Arthur Nestor

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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).

MonsterDrawing2 copyBoxofStuff copyArthur 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.

ArthurNestorStudy2 copyWe 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).

ArthurinBioMuseum copyI’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).

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western times article copyArhurNestor-Install2 copyArthurNestor-Install20 copyArthurNestor-Install24 copyBeneath 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.