“Consider what a museum might look like, were its collections to consist solely of the support materials and exhibition paraphernalia accorded to significant art or artifacts.”— wall text panel, The Imaginary) Museum
In The (Imaginary) Museum, viewers peruse elaborate, dramatically lit cases and wall displays containing detailed labels and beautiful, custom-made mounts for a variety of (absent) (fictional) objects. Listening to an audio guide for what isn’t there, visitors can also participate in educational ‘games’ of the sort available in teaching institutions: drawing lines connecting ambiguous silhouettes; identifying mysterious sounds, or perhaps completing sentences that subtly over-determine our relationship with history through its relics.
At a time when many artifacts must be hidden from sight due to political, religious or social forces, The (Imaginary) Museum offers an opportunity to consider how much time we actually spend looking at objects and images in galleries and museums-- compared with the many minutes we spend reading the labels, listening to the curator/ artist/ expert talk, or looking at the exquisite setting the institution has constructed for its treasure.
Three object descriptions from the museum follow. Just as you would in its hushed, dim halls, you can imagine the works being presented. Because, of course, as possibly real as they sound, they are not there—or, for that matter, anywhere.
1 Mothwing evening gown, dressmaker’s sample, 1928.
Made entirely of wings from Hyalophora cecropia, this miniature dress would have served as a visual aid for customers interested in ordering evening wear in one of the modiste’s most expensive materials. The giant silk moth is North America’s largest native moth and reaches wingspans of up to six inches, though smaller specimens have been used here to give buyers a sense of how the larger insects would appear in the completed gown.
In nature, these spectacular russet and black markings are short-lived; adult cecropia have a lifespan of less than two weeks. Gathering the necessary quantity for the flounced skirt and train of this particular style would have been quite labor-intensive.
2 “golden” spike, early 1890s
In the 19th century, ceremonial railroad spikes such as this one were created for the celebratory moment marking a line’s completion. This particular ‘golden’ spike, identifiable by the imprint of a two-headed eagle, was made to serve as the final link connecting the Bulgarian trans-mountain railway. Unfortunately, it was stolen on the night of July 19th, 1894, before it could be driven into the ground.
The thieves believed it to be solid gold, and successfully sold it as such to the Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid II in 1896; he reported its disappearance during the occupation of the Ottoman Bank by the Armenian Revolutionary Federation on the 26th of August of the same year. Miraculously, it resurfaced in San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake, discovered in the rubble of a house on California Street. At that time it entered the (Imaginary) museum’s collection. Its value is primarily historical, as it is made of pyrite, otherwise known as fool’s gold, covered with 24 carat gold leaf.
3 French hair substructure (for high hairstyle known as ‘a la fregate’), used late 1770s. Wire, padding, wood
In the eighteenth century, women’s hairstyles reached a level of excess unmatched before or since, in both size and detail. This wooden platform and padded wire structure served as the hidden armature for one of the most elaborate of these theatrical constructions. Buried deep within, it would have supported a towering wig ornamented with feathers, jewels and—as the name of the hairdo indicates-- a model war ship, or frigate, riding on powdered waves of horsehair. In front and back, the wearer’s own hair would have been ‘blended’ into the wig and held in place with lard. (This last ingredient made such wigs attractive to rats, which sometimes made their homes in them.)
While wearing such a ‘high hairstyle’ must have been uncomfortable in the extreme—both because of its weight and, in many cases, what must have been a distinctly rancid odor-- it is possible to imagine its appeal. Such wigs nearly doubled the height of the average female courtier, dwarfing her male counterparts. Still, the wearer had to be careful while attending balls to avoid catching the lofty wig on fire. After several unfortunate incidents, chandeliers at court were permanently raised.