The Museum of Ordinary Objects
A soda can, a tissue box, a set of keys. Embalmed under museum-glass, the objects hold a distorted air, a gloss not quite transparent. You’re always looking past your face reflected back. There’s just a touch of dust upon the velvet under-settings, a smutch of prints across the case that consecrates the artifacts. A placard states that this irregular bluish pebble, for example, came from an abandoned lot in White Plains, circa 2013; this cellophane wrapper (Toledo, 2015) once covered a caramel candy. If you observe carefully you will discern traces of the candy’s sticky residue as well as glue from the factory sealing method.
The placards and captions do not inform one of “facts” so much as create an historical aura, which alienates us from these knickknacks and doodads which clutter our lives. The curators, by isolating the trash that surrounds us—the trash too numerous for us to notice any of it, by placing these items on pedestals, by writing their captions and tags, the curators help us to see them anew and (I’d go so far as to say) in the nude. There’s an erotic charge around these objects, ghosts leftover from being handled. Things you would find in any mall, swap meet, flea market are transfigured at every turn: a remote control appears moon-beamed in from science fiction. A salad fork looks like a cannibal’s keepsake.
More important than the museum’s methodical arrangement is the dawning realization that its order is simultaneously a disordering—adventitious, even aleatory. The contingency of any schema! The most self-conscious modes of curation depend on the very codes they would interrogate. The museum is a labyrinth wherein one doesn’t discover truths so much as lose oneself. Patrons are free to contemplate the thing as thing, without seeing it as some put-upon gesture of conventions and desires. Rather, we stroll around, staring, presuming nothing, until we recognize each artifact’s indwelling structure; able, in such isolation, to consider the various historical valences in which each thing’s been imbricated.
The marble steps up to the lobby, the faux-Doric pillars that frame each room, and the whispered hush that pervades the exhibition halls induce an attitude of reverence, hints of stories worthy of scholarship beneath our humdrum existence. Consequently, upon reflection, one experiences the invidiousness of that putative scholarship, too, since one recognizes that this so-called “culture” is only a hallucination. One stares at a plastic comb, a slipcover, a Post-It note. Suddenly the research on the placard seems controverted, made absurd and tendentious by its own mock-definitive tone. Nothing of importance could be said about such items. Such items, instead, are important in themselves.
Estranged from one’s own daily lived experience, one is ultimately left with the paradox: there is no culture as such in the present, nothing one can set apart as beyond the crass negotiations and half-truths which constitute muddling through. The museum has manufactured these things, fabricating their very object-hood, when—in the wild—they are merely fungible tokens within a vibrant matrix of exchange and interpretation.
These objects bear as much resemblance to their counterparts in the wild as the dull-eyed, emaciated bears and sullen tigers that one discovers in a zoo. Indeed, in a few cases, some visitors suspect that certain objects on display in the collection are in fact replicas, reconstructions of authentic ones stored in the museum vaults, although their ersatz nature is not specified anywhere in the copious guides or catalogs. We posit that the objects in the museum are signs (decoys, as it were) and thus incapable of being faked. And yet, ironically, don’t such objects act as little more than signs of themselves in a state of nature, i.e., what is a modern house but a type of museum? They exhibit their imposture; in doing so, they thereby exhibit our own imposture, too.
This is my third visit to the museum in as many days. I examine a light switch mounted on the wall, captivated by the technological genius through which a finger’s casual flick could brighten a vast and cavernous white gallery cube. An instant, and I’m engulfed in darkness. Another, and all’s aglow. It tempts me to press it, to have a bit of contact with the mechanism that was once attached to an electric current, the wires carrying the energy over miles from some generator, a unit on a grid connecting factories, domiciles, supermarkets, etc. I know a guard lurks near. He has a fat pug-like face. He interlaces his fingers over his belly. He has a few crumbs in his mustache. I let him sleep.
I look again at the light switch. Now I’m no longer sure it’s part of the exhibit, part of the oddities and disjecta on display, an exemplar of our commodified Western lifestyle. Maybe it’s simply a part of the wall; maybe it’s alive, electric, connected—what conditions my feelings? Looking again, yes, I believe it’s connected to the source which, even now, illuminates this whole museum. I walk inside a crystal where things have heft and color, where they are reckless and architectural and godlessly real.