Monday, August 31, 2009

The Garden of the Four Monks

The Museum's forecourt has gotten a major upgrade this summer, inspired by a generous grant of rusty materials, woody scraps, and other curiosa from Neva Beach. One may be forgiven for picturing Neva Beach as a pleasant shoreside locale where one can find treasures from the sea, and this is, in a sense, true, but Neva, properly speaking, is a person, not a place.

The xeriscape gardening against the museum's front wall is based on some gnarled stumps and includes of a number of strange plants endemic to the Zymoglyphic Isles, including land sponges (zoophytes, in fact, not plants at all) and the legendary Giant Rust Flower. This last flowers only once in its lifetime, but spectacularly, a huge colorful bloom; the flower then rusts in place, decaying slowly thereafter. Other plants derive their drought tolerance from metallic and plastic components.

The theme for the landscaping is the legend of the four Zymoglyphic monks, a tale from the Era of Oriental Influence. An ancient tradition holds that enlightenment can be sought in the study of nature and natural forces, especially rust. According to the tale, each monk set out to seek enlightenment, but as is so often the case, different schools of thought prevailed.

The Scholar Monk maintains a well-stocked library, surrounding himself with the writings of the great minds and kindred souls of the ages. He studies and reflects on them, compiles, analyzes, and synthesizes his research. He collects art and significant objects for inspiration (a favorite viewing stone, a copper nodule, is currently on display). He has staked out a breezy top-floor aerie in one of the garden plants, and installed a mobile that makes the wind visible. A little monkey comes to visit sometimes to remind him to get his nose out of his books and reconnect with nature.

The Rust Monk is less interested than the Scholar Monk in what other people have said and done. He wants to find his own unique way, unencumbered by the past, listening to an inner voice. He seeks enlightenment from his creative expression, to express things that cannot be said in words. He has collected a number of rusty objects and assembled them to create a complex living environment. His creation floats above the garden, not rooted in any part of it.

The Wandering Monk has decided to rid himself of the distractions of possessions, collections, books, and art, no matter how pure or ennobling they may be. He has kept only a bag full of necessities and set off to wander in the wilderness, savoring the freedom of the adventure, to see what nature and rust can teach him. In the twists and turns of the thick branches of an ancient stumpy tree, he has found a rusty viewpoint from which to view the passing scene and get some perspective on the world. He will soon be moving on in his restless quest.

The Shelter Monk is a sort of hermit. Like the Wandering Monk, he has cast away his possessions, but he is content with a simple place to sit in quiet, inward contemplation, sheltered from the buffeting environment. He believes that each part of the universe contains the whole and one need only stay in one place and fully experience it to attain the sought-after enlightenment. It is not necessary to go from one place to another. He has found his spot on a flap of rust, under a wide natural shelter, and he plans to stay there.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Views of the Zymoglyphic Region

The Zymoglyphic Museum has longed claimed to be the world's repository of artifacts from the Zymoglyphic region. This is all well and good, but many have wondered just what this supposed place looks like, as the museum cuurently contains physical artifacts but no visual representations of the place itself. Our diligent curatorial staff has just unearthed some views made by artists accompanying the European and American explorers who long ago managed to penetrate the thick mists that surround the region. While some of what these images depict is be based in reality, there is much that can be attributed to the cultural biases of the image makers, not to mention tropical fevers and the gas produced by the notorious hallucinogenic fungus that populates the swampier areas of the region.

The full set can be seen here

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Behind the Scenes Tours, May 16th and 17th

Another lap around the Sun, the buds of spring are opening, and so are the creaky doors of the Zymoglyphic Museum, shaking off the rust of winter hibernation, letting in a bit of fresh air to shift the dust around and dilute the musty aromas, ready to welcome visitors. You can tour the museum, meet the curator, and go behind the scenes to see where exhibits are created (some allege that the artifacts themselves are concocted there as well). A foretaste of the exhibit preparation area is show below, sorry evidence of the inhuman conditions under which museum personnel are expected to labor.

New this year will be a small exhibit of viewing stone photographs. The museum shop will have a limited number of the new Museum Guides available for purchase. You will also be able to visit on site the studio of Judith Hoffman and delight in her artist books, metal sculpture, and metaphysical devices.

The tours are part of Silicon Valley Open Studios and will be held between 11 AM and 5 PM both days, free of charge. Details can be found here.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

The Bigfoot Discovery Museum

Mike Rugg had an encounter with a Sasquatch in northwestern California when he was four years old and has spent the rest of his long life gathering and presenting evidence to a skeptical world of the existence of these creatures. In 2004, he set up a little museum by the side of the road in Felton, a small town nestled in a redwood-lined valley north of Santa Cruz. Due to the elusive nature of the subjects there are very few artifacts of the creature itself, just some footprint casts, a couple of teeth of unknown origin, and some blurry video. Much of the collection consists of popular culture references to Bigfoot, including a collection of relevant Weekly World News issues ("I had Bigfoot's BABY!"). There is also a map of the Santa Cruz Mountains pinpointing recent sightings, a set of comparative skulls of other hominid species, and a diorama featuring two full size Bigfoot models. The diorama was dark and its contents appropriately difficult to photograph.

My own childhood did not involve any sightings, but I was fascinated by UFOs, the Loch Ness Monster and related phenomena. I grew up reading the books of Charles Fort and Ivan Sanderson. Fort was a chronicler of paranormal wonders such as rains of frogs, giant wheels of light observed at sea, poltergeist activity, and spontaneous combustions, events that once might have been called "miracles." Sanderson was a pioneer of the field of cryptozoology, which uses the modern language of biology to establish the literal existence of animals that might otherwise be considered mythical. Its basic premise is that it is at least possible that large unknown animals exist in our modern world whose existence is unreasonably denied by the scientific establishment. Usually, they can only be detected by indirect evidence, eyewitness accounts, and the occasional blurry photograph or film.

In its flesh-and-blood form, Bigfoot is presented as a surviving remnant of an anthropoid race ancestral to humans. It is believed to be omnivorous, sometimes taking fruit from local trees and snatching chickens from pens, but otherwise harmless. Some Bigfoot researchers postulate that the creature has magic properties and can turn invisible.

If nothing else, the Bigfoot Museum supports the idea that there is still some mystery in the world, that not everything has been explored, that there is hope for a discovery that shakes our everyday assumptions. It harkens back to the Age of Wonder when nautical maps sported mermaids and other fanciful sea creatures, a world view on the edge of science and magic. There is something significant on the periphery of our vision, and try as we might to get it into focus, it always manages to elude us.

See also Loren Coleman's International Cryptozoology Museum in Portland, Maine and the Bigfoot exhibit at the Willow Creek-China Flat Museum in northern California.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Spirits under glass

This past weekend saw a return to the de Young museum's ethnographic collections, first profiled here three years ago. This time I was armed with a new image-stabilized camera to meet the challenge of the museum's "no tripod, no flash" photography rules, with the results found here.
The collections are drawn from Africa, pre-Columbian Mexico, and especially New Guinea.
Most of these objects originally had specific roles in the spiritual life of the community. They have fascinated Westerners for centuries as strange objects from exotic realms. To some, they were grotesque pagan idols, representing ignorance and savagery, and to the Romantics a glimpse into a purer human, one more deeply connected to the basics of existence from which we as industrialized people have become alienated. Anthropologists collected, identified, classfied, and recorded these objects, as a biologist would do with natural specimens, and they are often still displayed in natural history museums. In the early modern era, artists, especially those connected with the surrealist movement, saw these object as having genuinely inspirational aesthetic qualities which could be appreciated independent of their spiritual function. Finally, oceanic imagery devolved into kitsch with the development of the Tiki culture.
One function of a museum is to try stop the passage of time, to preserve decaying things under bell jars or pickled in brine, bringing dead things back to life in dioramas, preserving the artifacts of the past. Encased in the sleekly modern architecture of the museum we see organic figurines, made of wood, clay, stone, or feathers, once living spiritual objects, extracted from dying cultures, forever frozen in action in their vitrines.

For another photographic perspective on this collection, see here.

The de Young's New Guinea collection is documented here

The Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford contains a wealth of ethnographic artifacts in a Victorian setting. Its Web site offers a virtual tour

The Metropolitan Museum in New York City has a wonderful collection of African, Oceanic, and pre-Columbian artifacts, nicely documented here.

An excellent reference on the influence of "primitive" art on 20th century artists can be found here.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

The Pacific Museum of Anatomy and Science

We previously reported on a San Francisco Chronicle facsimile of its 1865 Lincoln assassination edition, which contained a notice for the long-gone Gilbert's Museum. On the opposite side of the same page was a prominent advertisement for "The Pacific Museum of Anatomy and Science", located on Pine Street between Montgomery and Sansome. This educational institution, "For Gentlemen Only", specialized in wax models of instructive anatomy, most of whom were female, along with a collection of Egyptian mummies and preserved anatomical curiosities. It was a place where men fancying themselves refined gentlemen could gaze in detail on female anatomy in a civilized manner, foregoing the whorehouses, back alleys, and dangerous hellholes of the nearby Barbary Coast.

Popular anatomical museums were a common phenomenon in 19th century America. Unlike professional medical museums, which were intended for serious study by physicians, these tended to be sensationalist and scandalous while presenting themselves as morally uplifting. Many of the grotesque deformities and diseases (depicted in great detail in wax models) were attributed to immoral living, sexual misconduct, and self-abuse. The Pacific Museum ad touts a special exhibit on the 'evils resulting from TIGHT LACING...shown and illustrated by FULL LENGTH TRUTHFUL AND LIFELIKE FIGURES'.

A famous exhibit at The Pacific Museum was the head of the legendary Gold Rush-era bandit/folk hero Joaquin Murrieta, preserved in a jar. The head had been obtained from its owner in 1853 by a posse of rangers who needed proof that this person had in fact been dispatched in order to claim the reward offered by the governor of California. Whether that head was the same as the one in the museum is a matter of controversy.

The final fates of both head and museum are recounted by Richard Rodriguez:

The head, or another head, found its way to Dr. Jordan's Pacific Museum of Anatomy and Science on Market Street in San Francisco, where it remained alongside kangaroos in canisters and Egyptian mummies and the "amazing cyclops child". One April morning in 1906, the lid of the jar began to rattle; the head revolved in its brine. The jar with the head and all the other jars moved on their shelves, then crashed to the ground. It was the Great San Francisco Earthquake. A hideous stew bubbled on the floor for several days as the city burned. Dr. Jordan's Museum did not burn down but it never reopened. A janitor mopped up the gore and it all got thrown away or was buried somewhere. So they say.

Popular anatomical museums had disappeared by 1930's due to a combination of suppression by the authorities, changing tastes in curiosities, and the availability of competing venues for observing female flesh. A modern version of this concept (now available to both sexes) is the traveling series of Bodyworlds exhibitions and their imitators. Real human bodies are meticulously preserved, posed as if alive, and put on display for the general public to view. There is less emphasis on disease, but there is the same combination of high-minded purpose and morbid curiosity.


Making San Francisco American: Cultural Frontiers in the Urban West, 1846-1906 by Barbara Berglund

Days of Obligation by Richard Rodriguez devotes a chapter to the search for Joaquin Murrieta's head.

The Decline and Fall of the Popular Anatomical Museum, by Michael Sappol of the National Library of Medicine

For more information on topic of anatomical museums, we refer interested parties to the excellent Morbid Anatomy blog, which includes an exhaustive set of links to medical museums around the world.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Museum Guide now available!

The lack of updates here over the past year has been mainly due to the gestation of a printed version of the museum. The resulting 50-page, full color, lavishly illustrated tome, The Zymoglyphic Museum: A Guide to the Collections, is now available to augment your library, to display on your coffee table, or simply be squirreled away for perusal at a later date. You will have the museum with all the sensual pleasures that a book affords, with more in-depth explanations than found on the Web site. The book reviews the history and artifacts of the Zymoglyphic Region, surveys its unique flora and fauna, and probes the nature and meaning of museum's place in the scheme of things. It can be yours for a mere double-sawbuck, or half that for an incorporeal version delivered directly to your virtual desktop.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Mark Twain Reviews a Museum of Curiosities in San Francisco

The San Francisco Chronicle recently printed a facsimile page of its coverage of the Lincoln assassination in 1865. One column to the left, under "Amusements", was this note:

GILBERTS MUSEUM - This ever attractive place for young and old, Gilbert's Museum, will have its doors thrown open as usual to the public to-day. The Chinese Jugglers and Learned Pig are still among the attractions.

For a few months in latter half of 1864, Mark Twain, the master of sardonic Victorian prose, was the only full-time reporter for the San Francisco Daily Morning Call. He filed the following dispatches from Gilbert's Museum:

July 3, 1864

MARKET STREET MUSEUM. - The management of this institution has had a severe though not painful attack of novelty on the brain. A whole batch of curiosities have been added to the cabinets during the week past. The French gentleman, extensively known as the Irish giant, and the lightning calculator, who must be a Yank -- notwithstanding he hails from Lancashire, are still there. The Museum is worth a visit at least once a week.

July 4, 1864

TOM THUMB AND HIS BRIDE. - We all remember what a furor was created when General Tom Thumb was married to Minnie Warren, at Grace Church, New York, and how the press teemed with descriptions of the interesting event. The whole bridal party are now in San Francisco, at Gilbert's Museum; not in the flesh, to be sure, but so near it that a casual glance would be likely to deceive all at a cursory view. We refer to the wonderful cero plastic group of the "Fairy Wedding," at the Museum, which Gilbert, through his keen sighted caterer, Hudson, lately brought on from New York. The group also includes a life-like representation of the great Barnum, the Master of Ceremonies on that interesting occasion. It is well worth a visit, and we are glad to know that the enterprise of the manager of the Museum is appreciated and rewarded. Thousands, including a vast crowd of the fair sex, crowd the Museum daily to see this remarkable exhibition.

September 25, 1864

GILBERT'S MUSEUM. - They have engaged an individual at the Museum who may be said to be minimum in regard to size, and maximum as to muscle. He is called the Lilliputian Hercules, and is probably about the dimensions of that mythological deity, when, as a suckling in his cradle, he strangled a serpent. He is some at lifting heavy weights, and it is proposed to engage him for the purpose of boosting the McClellanites into power. You can see the baneful effects of slavery here, too, in the person of a diminutive North Carolina female contraband, who has about as much brain as a humming-bird, and who could be put into a gallon measure with ease without contracting her crinoline. There are many other things here which make one lift his eyes and wonder at the freaks of Nature when she is in a frolicsome mood. Mr. Hudson has again assumed the management of the Museum, and he will speedily add other novelties to the collection.

The source is Twain scholar Barbara Schmidt's collection of newpsaper articles that can be attributed to Twain. He did not have a byline, but his style was so distinctive that these quotes are presumed to be his. Perusing the rest of Twain's articles makes for wonderful view of our fair city in its wild adolescence.

Gilbert's Museum would appear to have been one of the many "dime museums" that were popular in 19th century America. Most were on the East Coast, with P.T Barnum's American Museum in New York the flagship of the genre. They drew in the paying public with oddities, freakish amusements, and visual spectacles, then claimed the moral high ground with sanctimonious instruction. The history of the phenomenon is chronicled in the Weird & Wonderful: The Dime Museum in America.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

The Albany Bulb: A Zymoglyphic Landscape in the East Bay

The Albany Bulb is a chunk of landfill west of the town of Albany, which itself is a bayside town just north of Berkeley. The Bulb is connected to the mainland by a narrow neck of land and was used as a garbage dump for many years. The landscape features slabs of concrete at odd angles, often painted wild colors, rusty rebar snakes everywhere, rampant vegetation, and trees festooned with all manner of strange objects. There is a community of people creating assemblage art from the treasure trove of decayed and weathered materials available in the weeds and trees. On the north shore, driftwood giants gaze across the bay and strange metal plants sprout from the grass. Winter storms knock down the art and provide material for new ones. The art currently varies from modest trailside assemblages to monumental driftwood-and-rusty-metal sculptures. Many of them are the creation of Osha Neumann. There is also an outdoor gallery of paintings that are slowly decaying into the landscape.

The area was formerly colonized by indigent campers, setting up homes under trees or in shacks. One of them built a small castle from local materials. As all the residents have now been rousted by the local authorities, the castle itself is decaying into the landscape. Documentation about the Bulb can be found here with a video here.

A previous generation of driftwood assemblagists created a sculpture garden in the mudflats west of nearby Emeryville. The constructions began in the mid-sixties and flourished in the following two decades; they were a treat to see while driving along I80 to the Bay Bridge. Some of them are the subject of a photo essay by Douglas Keister in his 1985 book Driftwood Whimsy. The mudflats are now the pristine Emeryville Crescent State Marine Reserve.