The Museum of the Unintentional, on display again

Originally rejected by The Ephemerist (summer 2023 edition)

Our collections bring us together in this space, in person or remote. But does the same hold true if the collection centers on the uncollectible, presented to the unfamiliar?

This spring, for the first time in more than five years, I was able to present The Museum of the Unintentional publicly, as part of a wider celebration of self-made publishing art and perspectives. The Museum of the Unintentional – or “the MU,” for those short on time or syllables – entails a somewhat rotating selection of unexpected and found physical media, predominately handwritten and semi-public items such as fliers, postings or letters.

“The Mu,” on display again, in April 2023 at Lion’s Tooth bookstore in Milwaukee.

The sources may be abrasive or comical, the content bawdy, self-righteous or abstract, with the entirety of the Museum consisting of one-of-one entries. Most of the items have been gathered by me over the years, though a handful of entries were offered by friends, all after discovered in attics, bus stops, estate sales and the like. (These donations serving as perpetual gifts.) Why I kept particular items, pulled them off lampposts, snuck them from community bulletin boards … I suppose that’s a matter of personal taste of lack thereof. It just hasn’t seemed fair, I figure, to let the ravages of weather or neglect eliminate, for instance, a rant by a neighbor of a convenience store after the manager kicked out their friend, otherwise known for kindly “raising 10 tarantulas.” Similarly, it’d be a pity to disavow the elaborate business plans of the man whose grandfather “really” started NASA. Or to turn a blind eye to the suburban fascist typing out extensive praise of Joe McCarthy decades after his reign of terror and martini-soaked death.

Previously, there had been two, smaller showings of The MU, relegated to my basement and tolerated by my wife (and our cats) as it ran in conjunction with my birthday and all birthday wishes therein. These earlier presentations were even simpler as the items were predominately stowed in that same basement. Into the return of larger social gatherings in the past year, I was able to consider a new presentation – and what that reaction could entail for the unacquainted and unaware. In the unique spirit of ephemera collecting, I present brief reflections and examples of this narrow realm for presentation and perception with our heartening hobby.

Live from the Official After-Party
On a Saturday evening in April, the Museum of the Unintentional made its largest and most public showing yet, for dozens of people at the inestimable Lion’s Tooth bookstore as part of the after-party for the annual Milwaukee Zine Fest. Having that morning already perused the varied brilliance from the festival of zines – those D.I.Y. publications, Xerox’d or risographed, personal and political – I returned to my neighborhood to lug the entirety of the museum from its new-ish art studio storage into a generous nook at the bookstore. In its total: a discarded bookshelf, decorated with spraypaint, wrapping paper scraps and a copy of that last linotype newspaper, the Saguache Crescent; 15 exhibit entries of distinct ephemera, including high school notes to a Buffalo teen named Neil from 1984, letters of complaint, often misguided, to local businesses, and left-behind photos of a morose wedding and, separately, a hard partying father; one painting of a dreadlocked messiah gleefully thrown overboard and proselytizing to sharks; and one TV/VCR hook-up presenting footage of an unknown family’s retreat, shoddy sizzle reels from a technical college and more. It fit into a space approximately 6-foot tall by 5-foot wide where the store typically places local artistic prints and a comfortable chair.

Enjoyers of ’80s teen notes and novice pro-McCarthy reflections, both including in this iteration of The Museum.

Attendance was free and included a zine created by me to serve as a program, with brief context on source, year and, where applicable, donor. Even as the official after-party of this regionally popular zine fest, there was no guarantee of attendance, much less engagement. Indeed, the first hour was slow and quiet, a passing aspect for the handful of store visitors, common to anyone who has operated a convention booth or festival kiosk. Then, into the evening, it became a well-trafficked store, half with friends and acquaintances, and half with the unknown. And here, I witnessed a deeper shared appreciation for the formal display of items that we may, in other terms, come across, tuck away, merely recall as chuckling, passing oddities.

Of the interactions with/from the Museum ephemera: a number of Gen Z aged zinesters – a generation raised entirely in the digital, yet carving their own paths for physical expressions and publications – latched on to the raw nature of photos presented in a couple of the exhibit items. A good natured crust punk marveled at the meticulous handwriting in one exhibit’s multi-paged complaint on the state of the world to a point-of-purchase marketing firm. My wife recognized the name of a salty former work client in a displayed quasi-legal document. Another attendee began the detective work of tracking down Neil, the single recipient of so many notes as mentioned above, with a phone call to a notable Buffalo funeral home that shares his somewhat notable last name.

On this same front of sharing, a couple who are friends and attendees, mentioned they may be open to offering two fresh items from their own home for the collection (one, a lengthy, involved and errant voicemail message; and two, a letter between two arguing roommates with bragging over drug consumption, found in a former rental). Another acquaintance outlined a podcast created around found fan fiction for a ‘90s boy band picked from a Chicago thrift store.

A separate acquaintance shared their own zines of bric-a-brac, which was in one instance presented in the form of a guessing game complete with paper panels that flapped open to reveal answers. In lesser references, most anyone engaged had an idea of their own interactions with unanticipated/unstable/unusual ephemera from our social spaces and
spheres. Uncollectible items, mentally catalogued all the same.

Unique, but not alone
Here we can understand more broadly that these unique items in The MU aren’t necessarily a unique phenomenon. Southward from my home, the Racine Art Museum has held inventive exhibits of handmade publications, meant only for groups, lovers and passersby. When it comes to presenting the “unpresentable,” Jon Mueller, a colleague who co-runs an apothecary in Door County, Wisconsin, alongside his meditative percussion performances and recordings, will from time to time remove the latch and lock from his collection of intact, shaved off facial hair.

Cover of a zine acting as a program for the spring 2023 showing.

Further from my home state, one gets the sense at, say, the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia or the many “house museums” in New Orleans that the everyday can always be profound, with the right presentation. Found Magazine, TV Carnage and the Found Footage Fest have separately defied the museum set to take imaginative, temporary artifacts right to the masses, in print and on the big screen. Another step back: stretch the terms and we might find most historical museum pieces were never meant to be shown and discussed (vases? dinnerware? weapons? garments?) – bringing with it important questions on ownership, context, power and privacy.

These heady and grey conversations are mutually exciting and academic. For other pages or interactions, perhaps. Zoom back in on our audience and this recent display in Milwaukee. While the platforms may be shared, the items, oddities and ephemera found in these and my own collection rarely are. And so I come back to you, the curious and fellow collectors – what other examples of such displays can you detail? Or: what items would or could you catalog and present to the intrigued few? I would love to hear your examples, interests and inspired curations. (Or, why not, showing opportunities for my own.)

About Justin

Justin Kern pays the annual bill to own this domain that contains his name. What you see here is a sampling of how he chooses to use that online space. He lives in Milwaukee and still plays Sega Genesis.
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