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Life on display



Last modified: Thursday, August 20, 2015
The Museum of Everyday Life, housed in a rambling old barn on Route 16 in Glover, Vt., is currently exhibiting a show devoted to an entity we all live with, and that is as much a part of us as air and water.

In a word: dust.

A visitor will find in the museum vials, jars and microscopic slides of all kinds of dust. Cosmic dust. Coal dust. Grain dust. Gold dust. Dust Bowl dust. Sawdust. The kind of dust kicked up by, and onto, your car by a New England back road on a hot, dry day. The soot that accumulates on the blades of a fan over the course of a summer. The stuff that collects under beds, rolls into corners, takes on an alarming life of its own and is the bane of amathophobes (those who fear dust) everywhere.

Part roadside attraction and part intellectual game, The Museum of Everyday Life honors the mundane, on the theory that just because something is in everyday use doesn’t mean it isn’t to be celebrated or admired. One era’s Greek amphora is another’s Coca-Cola bottle, after all. There are no coffee table catalogues or didactic, typed wall labeling.

The museum – in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, a two-hour drive from Concord – operates on the same principle as an unmanned farm stand that uses the honor system. It’s open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tours are self-guided. Admission is by donation. You turn the lights on and off. You can leave a suggestion as to what ordinary object the museum might focus on next.

If this doesn’t square with your idea of a lofty art museum, that’s the general idea. Five years ago, Clare Dolan, the museum’s chief operating philosopher, acted on an idea she’d had since the mid-1990s, which was opening her own museum. “I’m interested in the social and cultural history of objects,” Dolan said. She lives in a house next to the museum. It’s similar in philosophy to the Main Street Museum of Art in White River Junction, which also takes a broader view of what constitutes culture worth saving.

Dolan, who grew up in Chicago, moved to Vermont in 1990, after graduating from Oberlin College in Ohio. She became part of the Bread and Puppet theater collective in Glover, and performed with them for some 20 years before deciding to leave. (In the mid-90s she went back to Chicago to earn a Master’s degree from the Chicago Center for Book and Paper Arts.) Puppetry doesn’t pay all the bills, so on the suggestion of a friend she went to nursing school.

She is now a part-time intensive-care nurse at Northeastern Vermont Regional Hospital in St. Johnsbury, which allows her to continue her work both as a puppeteer and as director and curator, if you will, of the museum.

The museum, whose exhibitions change annually, came out of Dolan’s fascination with the kunstkammer, or cabinet of curiosities: a craze that took hold in the 17th and 18th centuries.

In a period of exploration across the globe, by sea and land, and the growth of cartography, the cabinet of curiosities – an animal skull next to a bird skeleton next to plant and insect specimens – was a way of cataloguing the world, and all the marvels in it. By the late 1700s, the French Enlightenment philosopher and writer Denis Diderot concluded work on his massive and catholic Encyclopedie, with entries on everything from maple trees to the Will of God to lawgiver to humor.

In this vein, Dolan said, she wanted “to make a 3D encyclopedia.”

She also wanted to avoid the hierarchical feel of many museums. She loves looking at art, she loves the paraphernalia of showing art – the vitrines, labels, drawers and frames. But she doesn’t always care for the pedantic nature of museum-going, or the relationship between corporate sponsorship and museums in the age of the blockbuster exhibition.

In The Museum of Everyday Life’s manifesto, posted on its website, Dolan writes “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?”

Museums are, by and large, places where cultures exalt those works of art that have always been the province of collectors with enough capital and influence to buy a Manet or Picasso, a Faberge egg, a Yoruba face mask or a Japanese screen. They’re displayed as objects of veneration, both from an artistic and financial perspective. They’re guarded against theft, secured against human touch, and roped off, discouraging close scrutiny. It probably has to be that way, but it can also set up a rather static, even distant dynamic between viewer and art.

The Museum of Everyday Life takes the opposite approach. No guards, no ropes, no alarms.

“I encourage touching and participation,” Dolan said. Sometimes this has resulted in petty theft, but Dolan shrugs it off.

Dolan’s first show was about matches. “And then the house burned down (in 2012),” she said. After rebuilding on the same spot, she continued her work at the museum, creating a show about safety pins. Exhibits about pencils and toothbrushes followed.

Which is why you will find in the museum such sundries as a toothbrush with a Mr. Peanut handle, pencil sharpeners in the shape of a milk carton and a 7-Up bottle, pencils advertising the American Television Electronic School in Erie, Pa., and the Pioneer Corn Co., matchbooks labeled Kroon Lucifers from Sweden, Nederlands Fabrikaat and Verste en allumettes de Surete, Cote d’ivoire, a replica of a roller coaster made from match sticks and a curtain made from safety pins.

Once Dolan has determined what a show is going to be, she sends out emails and posts on the museum’s website asking for donations of that object or looks for it herself. A lot of it is word of mouth. Sometimes she hears about a significant collection, as in the case of a man in Montpelier who had a cache of toothbrushes that she used in the toothbrush show.

This year’s exhibition came out of being holed up inside this past winter and “seeing layers of dust.”

Unlike previous shows, about concrete objects, dust “seemed kind of a departure,” Dolan said.

But the more abstract subject also lent itself to a broad interpretation. So while there is an example of a 1930s Eureka vacuum cleaner there is also a NASA-donated tiny specimen box of cosmic dust, and ash from lower Manhattan after Sept. 11. A jar of coal dust asks the viewer to consider the hazards to human and ecological health from its use. There is a large, scarily faithful replica, sewn in cloth, of a dust mite. Dolan hand-writes the explanatory wall labels, which are brief and witty.

Dolan has volunteers who help with carpentry and staging the exhibitions. The funds from the donation box generally pay for maintenance and the next year’s show, a little more than $5,000 per year, according to an article in Seven Days. The museum is, in theory, open year-round but the barn is unheated so the busiest months are spring through fall.

A visitor’s log shows how many people have stopped in. They come from Vermont and New Hampshire, as you’d expect, but also from Portland, Ore., Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, New Orleans, Houston, New York, West Virginia, and South Carolina have also contributed visitors. Comments include “Dope!” “Very cool!” “Love this!” and “How bizarre.”

“I have a real impulse to preserve,” Dolan said. The long strings of teabags hung like Christmas lights on the windows in her kitchen served to emphasize her point.