After a remodeling hiatus, the Museum of Natural & Artificial Ephemerata has reopened for curator-led tours! We are working on an updated guidebook to the collection, and decided to post the introduction draft on the City of Living Garbage as the theme of collecting trash is central to MNAE. This is a work in progress. Comments welcome!
Welcome to the Museum of Natural & Artificial Ephemerata, where you have been all along! MNAE is one of the few remaining in-home, family-run museums in America. Our mission is to preserve endangered forms of collection, to offer a venue where the public can share objects and their stories, and to contemplate diverse processes of collecting.
The slim booklet you hold in your hands – doubtless shedding ink molecules in the fine grooves of your palm, just as your skin forever alters its paper with oil traces – will serve as your trusty guide through the fleeting world of the impermanent collection. A world populated with singular objects and miraculous traces, hypnogogica, petrifications, and taxidermy beasts: a still life where only eddies of dust express movement, mobile accumulations of our objects' inevitable decay.
The impermanent collection embeds within its displays, its aesthetics, and its very representational practices a reticulated chronology of the histories of collecting. Our panoramic vision glides from saintly relics to Wunderkammern, and from world’s fairs and public museums founded in the Enlightenment's wake to mutant museums marketed for urban leisure—namely, dime museums and theme parks. Each of these historic forms of collecting dealt the public a stacked deck, playing games with “reality regimes” or what was known to be natural, authentic, and true vs. fake, imaginary, a dream. The impermanent collection shuffles these decks together. Likewise, each form of collecting elaborated a peculiar “sensory habitat,”* an artificial atmosphere of preservation that orders the relationships between a collections' objects while excluding some things altogether. Such rarified atmospheres shelter ecosystems where things interact in unanticipated ways and uninvited agents move in (like silverfish and dermestid beetles). As for this Museum's purview, our horizons embrace attics, backyards, shopping malls, and the city itself as curious patterns in processes of collection. Given time even a humble cigarette butt can become an heirloom, and the city dump, a vast archive.
*Earlier MNAE guidebooks refer to “regimes of veracity” and “expository structures.” Here we update the terms to encompass a wider sense of what is at stake in these concepts. We claim that it is not only what was believable or accurate in representations that has changed, but the real itself; likewise, it is not only the structure of exposition or the techniques of exposing that have transformed, but the very habitat in which sensoriums sense things. As a crucial example, air conditioning has reconfigured the reality of metabolism for particular bodies alongside their sensations of the hot/cold continuum, while pushing new standards in the preservation of objects and public expectations of comfort.
As meditation and mediation on the themes of loss and accumulation, impermanent collection objects focus our attention onto ruins, trash, and husks that have been scavenged and exalted as cultural and historical curiosities. From this perspective, museums function as preservation-provenance machines, alchemically processing the wastes of the world into spectacular treasures. Unutterably sad ephemera, the objects of all museums gather dust and wage battle against decay, all the while posturing as essence/origin/past. Indeed, all that surrounds us everyday is fated to fade in memory and materiality – including the very collections that long to stop time. Here at MNAE, we embrace this inescapable loss by displaying objects in various states of decomposition, recognizing that the perfectly pristine antique is but an impossible illusion while today’s unremarkable kitsch shines with the brilliant light of its future significance, and landscapes are haunted by the lost call of extinct birds no living person can remember.
While this temporal transformation of the banal into important ephemera is melancholic, mysterious, and often lucrative, the gradual slippage between the natural and artificial is no less astounding and enigmatic. For in this dawning age of the Anthropocene, even the sky has become an all-encompassing artifact of accidental human alteration, ribosomes become ‘molecular machines,’ and the concept of nature itself is critiqued as having partly led us into ecological crisis. With the power of hindsight we begin encountering nature-without-humans as highly unnatural, and grasp evolutionary forms in their amazing design and artifice. This Museum celebrates the pivotal moment at which the humanmade finally surges with nonhuman forces, and our collective formations with ecological agents might learn to become more intentional, or even grow a sense of humor or kindness.
Collecting is both a natural process and remarkably artificial: Each of the world’s oceans has a central gyre of currents that slowly gathers matter through centripetal force, providing a new habitat for relations between plastics and phytoplankton. Simply put, these informal museums happen at every scale and in every body. You, too, are but a large Living Museum of Parasites & Symbionts. In this manner MNAE mimics the hoarding that proliferates in both biophysical and sociocultural realms and that rivers, bower birds, the Medici family, and the stars of A&E’s Hoarders have in common. Rather than a psychological disorder we approach hoarding as a sort of cosmic process that accumulates more and more things into novel collectives. While the difference between a collection and a hoard lies in the sensory habitat that brings consistency and narrative to an assemblage, hoards and museums are equally determined by the world-making force of materiality’s inexorable abundance and impermanence.