Museums shouldn’t be only for famous paintings and sculptures. There has to be room for old parking meters, a widow’s grave-visiting records, and a hand-carved self-defense cane crafted by a New Haven grandpa.
That’s the idea behind New Haven’s newest museum—The Mobile Museum of American Artifacts (MMoAA). It contains all those items. (The cane is pictured above, held by Taquann Brown.) They’re part of a collection that’s growing larger each day, thanks to contributions from everyday folks.
The idea is to collect fragments of personal and municipal history, meaningful objects that help tell the life story of a single person or, together, an entire community.
Fifteen local teens have taken up the task of artifact collection and curation as part of a summer apprenticeship program at Artspace, the 9th Square not-for-profit art gallery. They’re led by program coordinator Shelli Stevens and lead artist Laurelin Kruse.
Kruse, who graduated from Yale two years ago with an American Studies degree, began the project in her home state of Colorado. Her work this summer with the Artspace teens serves as the launch of a nationwide tour of MMoAA.
At MMoAA, a “museum tour” doesn’t mean walking around inside the museum. It means pulling the museum itself around the country.
That’s because the MMoAA is an old trailer, painted white and pale blue. On Monday, it was parked outside Union Station, where Kruse and the Artspace apprentices explained what they’ve been up to, and the Artspace exhibit they’re planning for later this month.
Mean Dogs, Beware
“Everyone is invited to contribute some personal object,” Kruse (pictured) said. “It’s a way of showcasing everyday American life.”
MMoAA is for collecting not just things, but the stories behind those things as well. “It’s show and tell for adults, and kids, for everybody.”
People can drop off items at ArtSpace or at the trailer, which will be parked at Union Station on Tuesday and at the New Haven Museum on Wednesday. Contributors fill out a form telling the story behind their artifact and decide whether to donate it permanently or temporarily.
Collected artifacts will be included in an exhibition at Artspace, starting July 25 and running to Sept. 13.
Asked for an example of what they’ve collected so far, apprentice Aiden Turlington (pictured), 17, held up the guts of a couple of old New Haven parking meters. He said they were donated by a staffer in the city’s transportation department, the guy who collects coins and maintains the meters. The donor spoke about how he liked the old meters better, because coins jammed them less often, Turlington said.
Taquann Brown, a 15-year-old Common Ground High School student, showed off an old cane, carved in the 1970s by a 69-year-old man. The cane was donated by the carver’s grandson, who said his grandfather had carved a number of such canes. The grandfather built gliders in World War II, to precision levels of thousandths of an inch.
Brown pointed out the sharp screw on the bottom of the cane, placed there to ward off any aggressive dogs the grandfather met on his walks around New Haven.
Also in the MMoAA collection is the artifact that inspired Kruse to begin the whole project. Grace Sawyer, a 17-year-old Metropolitan Business Academy student, held out the wooden binder, which opens with a satisfying creak. Inside are a widow’s records of placing flowers on her husband’s grave. The records are carefully maintained from 1941, indicating the type of flowers she delivered every weekend. Then in 1945, the record abruptly stops.
Kruse found the book in an antique store in Creed, Colo., and said, “I’ve got to have that.”
Sounds & Pockets
Also included in the exhibition will be the results of two other projects apprentices are working on.
As they explore New Haven, the teens are collecting audio recordings of various sounds from around town—a bus beeping as it kneels at a stop, the flipping of the Solari arrivals board in the train station, the voice of a passerby. Those sounds will be “displayed” using an old file cabinet. Each will go in a labeled drawer, the opening of which will trigger the sound to play.
The apprentices are also working on a project called “Pockets of New Haven.”
Shawn Luzzi (at left in photo below) explained: The apprentices approach strangers and “we kindly ask them to empty their pockets.” Participants put their personal belongings onto a white tray, which apprentices then photograph. (Pictured: your correspondent’s pocket contents.)
It’s a way of capturing a snapshot of a person’s life, based on what they’re carrying on their person on any random day. So far the team has seen a lot of iPhones, some rosary beads, and a lucky coin, among other things.
Photos of “Pockets of New Haven” will be displayed at the Artspace exhibit using an old-fashioned slide projector.
Next Stop ...?
MMoAA has its roots in work that Kruse was doing in archives and rare book collections while at Yale. She got interested in how value is placed on objects.
“What actually makes this valuable?” Maybe it’s the process of cataloging itself: The way an object is handled and considered can imbue it with new meaning. She began to think about making “an archive for everyday things.”
After New Haven, MMoAA’s museum tour heads to a small, rural community in Colorado. Kruse is looking for funding to keep her tour going as long as she can, to collect objects and tales from undiscovered chapters of the story of America.