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The Dartmouth
May 21, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Main Street Museum provides a quirky getaway

Much of the museum's collection is whimsical and humorous, but founder and curator David Fairbanks Ford encourages serious contemplation of his urban ore. Ford's artifacts include the following: Elvis's gallstones (alleged), dehydrated and framed cat carcasses, pressed poppy blossoms from Napoleon's grave, the Connecticut River Sea Monster and a jar of lint. These haphazard relics can be seen for free, although donations are always welcome.

The museum's offerings will entertain even the superficial eye, but Ford's intentions for the collection extend beyond mere entertainment. He says that he attempts to access the relation between human understanding and symbolic objects in both the social and the natural worlds. This reflection reduces the universe to a museum collection and, according to Ford, "requires a corresponding expansion of the human memory."

The museum exists under the idea that every object in the physical world has some sort of fascinating story behind it. This interaction between act and artifact is what makes the ordinary interesting to viewers.

These unique interactions provide Ford's basis for "curational experimentation." Organizing artifacts into the cosmos of his exhibitions, Ford juxtaposes certain objects and tells their stories either when prompted by a visitor or on explanatory note cards. A display titled "Flocked Cats" represents one of these experiments, and can be found in an obscured case on the far side of the gallery. It consists of two toy cats, accompanied by a description that reads, "The eyes are feline with their inscrutable stares. What scenes flitter across their inwardly directed gazes? Do these cats imagine a mole digging in a sun field? Do they anticipate a pounce? Or do their 'souls' imaginary sight' present only the incessant clanging drone of the machinery in Southeast Asian sweatshops to their 'sightless view'."

To the uninterested viewer, ratty toy felines might belong in a dump or at a yard sale. But here, these feline figures evoke greater meaning and become both social critique as well as an experiment concerning the state of inanimate beings.

Ford characterizes the Main Street Museum as a "museum about museums." He is interested in the nature of "museology" and challenges stuffy museum elitists. Influence derived from Wunderkammers, or "Cabinets of Wonder," is central to Ford's meditation. In the seventeeth century, Wunderkammers were collections of types of objects whose categorical boundaries were yet to be defined (Thanks, Wikipedia!).

Modern "cabinets" are collections that lack the division of subject matter that is deeply ingrained in our modern perceptions of academia and education. Combining archeological, scientific and artistic relics of wonder, such "cabinets" are all-inclusive and seek to represent the natural and social world.

Ford's artifacts retain a certain "arbitrariness of the cosmos" that they have come to represent. Much of the collection came to the museum by chance rather than through active effort.

"People just bring [artifacts] to me; we let the universe bring us stuff," Ford said. "We operate closer to the ground and we get the firsthand stories of the hobos traveling on the train outside."

Trekking to White River Junction with the intentions to view "junk" might not fit into the rigor of Dartmouth life, but the rewards can be found in Ford's wit and humor, displayed around the museum. When asked what about the museum would appeal most to a college student, Ford answered, "I think there's an empty canister of nitrous oxide and a crushed beer can in the back."

The Main Street Museum is an unlikely gem in this town, a place that sports the motto, "White River Junction -- It's not that bad." Among other unofficial mottos are, "Keep expectations low" and "Make your own fun."

White River Junction is marked by its sleepy facade and its past life as the largest northern railroad center in New England. Though the museum has resided in various locations throughout the Upper Valley since it first opened in 1992, its current residence occupies the town's old firehouse. The building, akin to both the artifacts inside as well as the surrounding town, carries historical significance not apparent at first glance.