The Museum of Everyday Life

By Clare Dolan

MOEL-exterior 2
The Museum of Everyday Life in Glover, VT

Perhaps the best, most basic introduction to The Museum of Everyday Life can be found in a text written on the occasion of its inaugural exhibition in 2011:

“The creation of The Museum of Everyday Life grew out of the following questions: What would it be like to imagine a museum which looked like a giant cabinet of curiosity, but filled with perfectly familiar objects rather than exotic ones? Could there be an institution which, rather than preserving rare and “authentic” objects, dedicated itself to deteriorating objects of no monetary value, but of immense ordinary-life consequence? What would it look like to defy the commodity-based model of collection and display? And how might it be possible to create exhibits by soliciting contributions from the public, to create massive participatory collections of objects and personal stories? Our goal is to explore, analyze and celebrate everyday life objects. This museum is the co-creation of all of us who live ordinary lives and have relationships with ordinary objects. Its purpose is a heroic, slow-motion cataloging of life; a detailed, theatrical expression of gratitude and love for the minuscule and unglamorous lives of the unfamous. We celebrate mundanity, and the mysterious delight embedded in the banal but beloved objects we touch everyday.

In addition to a robust and ever-expanding permanent collection, our special featured exhibits have explored ordinary objects such as the safety pin and the match. These exhibits look at the objects in-depth, tracing their surprisingly fascinating origins, and additionally presenting a wide array of unique perspectives and uses of the objects. The creation of these special featured exhibits has involved the input of many people, from neighbors to college students, from fanatical collectors to local artists and performers, all of whom have donated their time helping to construct exhibits, maintain and improve the buildings and grounds, advertise, and perform at openings and events.

The Museum has three components: 1) The Museum of Everyday Life Philosophy Department, involving the production and publication of theoretical writing about people and their relationship to objects, curatorial methodologies, and encylcopedism, 2) The Museum of Everyday Life Performance Company, which creates puppet shows and performances in an ongoing effort to examine everyday life via the life of objects, and lastly, but most important 3) The Museum of Everyday Life Exhibitions and Collections, comprised of actual exhibits which make the theoretical work tangible and concrete. We are located on Rt 16 about 5.5 miles south of Glover village in Northeastern Vermont, and here, in the imagination of the beholder…”

The Museum has been something I’ve carried around in my head for a long time– an idea, a sensibility, and a wish. When I bought a dilapidated house and barn in remote rural Vermont in 2004, I immediately indulged in fantasies of what it could become. But it took me until the spring of 2010 to make my first exhibition. And it wasn’t until 2011 that the first official Museum of Everyday Life exhibit: “Locofocos, Lucifers, and Phillumeny: A Celebration of the Match,” inaugurated its opening season.

International matchbooks from the exhibit, “Locofocos, Lucifers and Phillumeny: A Celebration of the Match”

In the beginning, I approached the museum mostly in a spirit of fun, wanting to play with the museum as Establishment, to mock the high seriousness and expense of these institutions. I started by writing a manifesto and making declarations about what a museum “should” be (see “The First manifesto of the Museum of Everyday Life”). But as I became more and more absorbed in understanding the actual mechanisms of arrangement and display, and the way different display strategies can encourage different feelings and responses in the viewer/participant, I began to more seriously develop the idea of the homemade museum as a real and potential tool for transforming our relationship to our lives – helping us to be both more self reflective and present in our day to day moments, to transform the way we think about being “ordinary” people and the mundane parts of being human. I would like to force all of us to look more closely at the questions “what do we value?” and “in what way do we value?” and “what objects surround us and why?”

The understanding I have now of the “everyday” is the foundation of everything I make, perform, and write about. I have discovered that this is my central concern, and gives coherence not only to my art projects but also to my politics, to how I try to live my life.

Bread and Puppet Circus, 2009

I started forming this sensibility when I worked at the Bread and Puppet Theater, which was where I “grew up” as an artist and learned how to think about art-making and living. Bread and Puppet gave me an example of how one artist, (founder and Director Peter Schumann) and subsequently a whole constellation of people who have worked with the theater over its 52-year existence, have found ways to integrate an art practice with fierce engagement with the rest of the world, and to not forget or leave behind the dumb normal tasks of life that we spend 90% of our time doing. Schumann is a genius at connecting his relentless art-making to everything else: the world, its politics and people, everything that happens culturally and rhetorically and politically, plus the sunrise and sunset, eating, sleeping, scratching, getting dressed, sneezing, pooping, etc etc. Inspired by this, but being my own person, a woman of a particular age, I have developed my own perspective, and emphasis, and tactics. But the Museum of Everyday Life is my ultimate expression of this understanding: a locus where the everyday object is the vehicle for examining the intersection of the Ordinary and the larger world stage of politics, power, economics, historic events, natural disasters – the “big” things.

At the same time, the museum is also a profoundly intimate space. The Museum of Everyday Life lives inside each of us, a vast and echoing cabinet of curiosities, every minute of every day filling our endless drawers and cases with new additions to the permanent collection. My choice of the match as the subject matter of our first exhibition reflects both this intimacy and its connection to the “larger” world. A simple household match hums with danger and hope. When we strike it for a moment we hold between finger and thumb the Promethean gift of Possibility. Each match is a tiny revolution, a promise of radical transformation. The match reminds us that all objects in some way come from the human body. Not only does the design of the match accommodate the requirements of the thumb and forefinger which must be able to grasp it, and the shapes of cup handles and bowls, for example, mirror the human hand, but also the bowl and the cup and the match echo the very shape of human hunger and thirst, the body’s need for heat, the eye’s requirement for light in order to see. Every object in our museum of everyday life speaks to the body, amplifying it, extending it, the way an echo in a deep canyon empowers a whisper. Belying their status of apparent insignificance, these humble, mundane things toil away endlessly to unburden us of the vast problematic contingencies of the body.

Title: Woman-Shaped Toothbrush. This toothbrush was found by Ron Kelley in 1985 when he moved into an apartment at 520 E. 11th. St. in NYC. Several years later Ron left the city for Southern Vermont. During the spring of 1990 his wife discovered the toothbrush lolling about on his desk. It surprised her. A lively conversation ensued. Since that conversation, this toothbrush was removed from Ron’s desk and brought down to the tool section in their basement where it languished for 24 years until it was resurrected for this exhibit, titled, “Toothbrush from Twig to Bristle In All Its Expedient Beauty”

Just as the bowl and the cup handle and the match are shaped by the demands and needs of the body, so also do the objects in the museum of everyday life record our attention and ministrations. The upholstery on the arm of a couch is worn smooth by caressing elbows, the chipped corner of a lacquered box is carefully glued back into place, a favorite wallet is creased and cracked by being opened and closed countless times. These things bear the proof of the lives we have led, the things we have done. They remember us.

In Syria, where everything is on fire, millions of people are on the move, carrying their last, salvaged possessions on their backs. Recently, the nation of Denmark declared its right to confiscate cash and valuables carried by refugees. Humanely, it claimed, excluding items of “sentimental value” from seizure. But what is sentimental? And what are “valuables”?

A gift from a lover, a family heirloom, a note, a paperclip, a pocket knife, a picture frame: in the museum of our everyday life a million invisible threads are tied to our fingers, ears, lips, and eyes, which are tied to every object, which are tied to the lips, ears, fingers, eyes and hearts of other people. The web is invisible. The object is seen, can be picked up, and cradled. Objects have secret powers that are not easily understood. In the noisy world of what we call our “popular culture” (the clangor of video and cell App and cinema and mp3 and reality show, of celebrity and specialty and infamy) the secret powers of the ordinary can appear to be muffled, smothered. Until the next hurricane. Until the lights go out.

Pencil sharpener exhibit

These are some of the reasons I am compelled to pay such close attention to ordinary objects, and why I feel they deserve not just one museum, but many museums. And because I am in love with the visual vocabulary that is available within the museum form – boxes and frames and short texts and titles, vitrines, dioramas, curtains, drawers, shelves, pedestals, maps, doorways – I take particular pleasure in putting together the exhibitions on my own. This past February I picked the special featured object for our upcoming season and then began spreading the word. People have responded from all over, sending everything from ideas, associations, ephemera, suggestions of where to find multiples of the object, art made out of the object, special examples of the object, and unusual uses of the object. I do a lot of research and scour garage sales, the internet and my neighbors’ barns and basements for objects. Slowly an assemblage materializes. The fun is in sorting through it, arranging, describing and contextualizing – giving it shape. That is how the exhibitions come to be.

That’s the story of The Museum of Everyday Life.


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