Ghost in the Artifact: Object-Oriented Histories and the Archaeology of the Present

By Matt Spry

There’s a scene in the 1994 film Pulp Fiction where Captain Koons, played by Christopher Walken, explains the history behind a gold watch he’s delivering to the adolescent son of a fallen Vietnam War comrade. On its face, this scene is evidence that Walken is a great actor and Quentin Tarantino writes dialogue well. More important, though, it demonstrates that even seemingly mundane objects have interesting and sincere stories attached to them.


Since founding the Mobile Museum of American Artifacts (MMoAA) about two years ago, director Laurelin Kruse has explored the relationship between objects, the people who owned them, and the stories that bind them together. During a June 2015 event in Somerville, MA (co-sponsored by NEMMC), Kruse stood in front of the 1968 Cardinal travel trailer that houses the museum’s collection, and discussed its origins, objectives, and ongoing collection development.


The fuels that keep this traveling museum running are, according to Kruse, “the sincerity of people who participate” and “feeling the ‘ghosts’ behind objects.” When she drives MMoAA to a new destination, it’s an opportunity to welcome new visitors to the exhibit and convey the museum’s message of embracing the connectedness and richness of everyday life. Then, there’s an implicit opportunity to convert these visitors to donors; many museum patrons (this author included) donate personal objects from their own lives. Some people may learn of the MMoAA’s impending visit to their community and bring a donation during their first walk-through. Others only learn about the museum upon their first visit and are compelled to run home for something meaningful to donate. Every donation is accompanied by a donor form for additional context. Kruse makes an audio recording of each donor’s story about the object — a requirement for every donation — and his or her connection to it. Since Kruse performs no additional research about an object’s origins, the donor’s memories alone comprise the wall text that future visitors will read when the object is exhibited.


As part of this process, Kruse is exploring an “archaeology of the present” and whether “it’s possible to create [a] kind of intimate, emotional connection between strangers” through the relatable stories that donors tell about their personal items. The objects that line the shelves of the museum’s walls couldn’t be more different — a pair of oven-melted glasses sits alongside a group of “flip” cell phones and an antique doorknob, among other exhibit configurations — but all of them, now divorced from their primary use, attain artifactual value in this museum setting. However, in the space between an object and the donor who once used it, an odd phenomenon emerges, according to Kruse. “[W]e can try so hard to summon a person or a moment through an object, something that was once very much alive, but objects are inherently inanimate, and so this absence and silence is all the more apparent, devastating, creepy, heartbreaking, present. Objects contain the presence of an absence and an absence of a presence.”


MMoAA’s approach to collection development — where the donor might be anyone, the object could be anything, and personal narrative trumps aesthetic value — breaks sharply with conventional museum practice, and Kruse found resistance within the field of libraries, museums, and archives (LAM) even before the project was operational. In relaying a discussion she had with a museum curator, she noted that “he shook his head often, and wondered what I was doing there (with my half-baked idea). I left totally devastated and thinking I’d made a huge mistake, that at best I’d end up with a pile of meaningless junk, or more likely, nothing at all.” Since the project has been on the road, however, Kruse has been surprised and encouraged by the reactions of visitors, donors, and colleagues. “Now that MMoAA has had a little time to become itself, people in the LAM field, seeing the MMoAA parked in front of their institution of employment, or at their local farmer’s market, have for the most part been surprised and delighted by the MMoAA. One of my favorite parts of this whole project is that it inspires spontaneous conversations with people in the field who constantly think about these issues and are at the forefront of how the field is changing.”


While Kruse’s subversion of the traditional museum model is not without its detractors, it does speak to a continuing trend of community-focused hybridization within the LAM field. Libraries continue to embrace their roles as makerspaces. The success of StoryCorps is evidence of a sustained public interest in oral histories. Pop-up museums are all the rage. As much as MMoAA bears many of the traditional marks of a museum, it can also be considered a sort of object-oriented oral history project. “Not everyone is on board, but my hope is that it will make people think a little differently about museums, our own pasts, objects, the stories we tell, how we assign meaning and value, where nostalgia comes from, why we’re trying to preserve the past or make it known, and whose history we’re telling and who is telling it,” Kruse said.


While her aspirations for MMoAA include collecting donations from all 50 states and a potential documentary project, Kruse remains focused on developing the collection through contributions gathered during artist residencies and stops throughout the country. She added, “as the collection grows and features objects and stories from a wider range of geographic locations and communities, I’d like to play with that more, showcasing artifacts that may contrast with my current location, or complement it.”
The MMoAA will be featured at the Rocky Neck Artist Colony in Gloucester, MA through September 28, 2015, before traveling to The Children’s Museum of Denver in Colorado on October 10, 2015. Kruse and the museum will end the autumn season in Green River, UT for the Frontier Fellows Artist Residency at Epicenter from October 22 through November 22, 2015. For more information on the continuing travels of Kruse and MMoAA, visit: