Fictional Museums


For many people, writers included, a museum is sort of mausoleum, a place where nature or a vibrant culture might go to die and be displayed frozen in a vitrine. Or it may be seen as a dull, didactic institution serving only the interests of a cloistered elite, while real life goes on outside its walls.

"What is it to be admitted to a museum, to see a myriad of particular things, compared with being shown some star's surface, some hard matter in its home!" (H. D. Thoreau, 1864)

"Where shall I go then? To some museum, where they keep rings under glass cases, where there are cabinets, and the dresses that queens have worn?" (Virginia Woolf, 1931)

"Away with biographies and histories, and libraries and museums! Let the dead eat the dead. Let us living ones dance about the rim of the crater, a last expiring dance. But a dance!" (Henry Miller, 1934)

Other writers, however, have recognized the creative potential of the museum as a repository of wonders or horrors, a microcosm that embodies the world in miniature, an array of objects with stories to tell, or a device to structure the narrative of a person, a community, or an idea. This exhibit displays a variety of literary approaches to creating a museum entirely of words.

T.H. White
H.P. Lovecraft
Vladimir Nabokov
James Joyce
Kurt Vonnegut
Italo Calvino
Thomas Pynchon
Steven Millhauser
Merlyn's room from The Once and Future King (T.H. White, 1938)

In T.H. White's retelling of the the Arthurian saga, the wizard Merlyn travels backwards through time. When the boy Arthur first meets him, Merlyn's living quarters strongly resemble the wildly eclectic collections of a classic Renaissance wunderkammer, with an additional dollop of artifactual anachronism.

It was the most marvellous room that he had ever been in. There was a real corkindrill hanging from the rafters, very life-like and horrible with glass eyes and scaly tail stretched out behind it. When its master came into the room it winked one eye in salutation, although it was stuffed.

There were thousands of brown books in leather bindings, some chained to the book-shelves and others propped against each other as if they had had too much to drink and did not really trust themselves. These gave out a smell of must and solid brownness which was most secure. Then there were stuffed birds, popinjays, and maggot-pies and kingfishers, and peacocks with all their feathers but two, and tiny birds like beetles, and a reputed phoenix which smelt of incense and cinnamon. It could not have been a real phoenix, because there is only one of these at a time. Over by the mantelpiece there was a fox's mask, with GRAFTON, BUCKINGHAM TO DAVENTRY, 2 HRS 20 MINS written under it, and also a forty-pound salmon with AWE, 43 MIN., BULLDOG written under it, and a very life-like basilisk with CROWHURST OTTER HOUNDS in Roman print. There were several boars' tusks and the claws of tigers and libbards mounted in symmetrical patterns, and a big head of Ovis Poli, six live grass snakes in a kind of aquarium, some nests of the solitary wasp nicely set up in a glass cylinder, an ordinary beehive whose inhabitants went in and out of the window unmolested, two young hedgehogs in cotton wool, a pair of badgers which immediately began to cry Yik-Yik-Yik-Yik in loud voices as soon as the magician appeared, twenty boxes which contained stick caterpillars and sixths of the puss-moth, and even an oleander that was worth sixpence -- all feeding on the appropriate leaves -- a guncase with all sorts of weapons which would not be invented for half a thousand years, a rod-box ditto, a chest of drawers full of salmon flies which had been tied by Merlyn himself, another chest whose drawers were labelled Mandragora, Mandrake, and Old Man's Beard, etc., a bunch of turkey feathers and goose-quills for making pens, an astrolabe, twelve pairs of boots, a dozen purse-nets, three dozen rabbit wires, twelve corkscrews, some ants' nests between two glass plates, ink-bottles of every possible colour from red to violet, darning-needles, a gold medal for being the best scholar at Winchester, four or five recorders, a nest of field mice all alive-o, two skulls, plenty of cut glass, Venetian glass, Bristol glass and a bottle of Mastic varnish, some satsuma china and some cloisonnZ¿, the fourteenth edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (marred as it was by the sensationalism of the popular plates), two paint-boxes (one oil, one water-colour), three globes of the known geographical world, a few fossils, the stuffed head of a cameleopard, six pismires, some glass retorts with cauldrons, bunsen burners, etc., and a complete set of cigarette cards depicting wild fowl by Peter Scott.

Rogers' Museum from "The Horror in the Museum" (H.P. Lovecraft, 1933)

Wunderkammers, repositories of the odd and unusual, evolved into museums of history, art, and natural history as we know them today. These were respectable scientific establishments; the grotesque and macabre became relegated to dime museums, lurid anatomical museums, wax museums, and "odditoriums." We can imagine that the objects in these types of museum come alive after the doors close for the day, as they do in Lovecraft's story "The Horror in the Museum."

[H]e had learned about George Rogers. The man had been on the Tussaud staff, but some trouble had developed which led to his discharge. There were aspersions on his sanity and tales of his crazy forms of secret worship†though latterly his success with his own basement museum had dulled the edge of some criticisms while sharpening the insidious point of others. Teratology and the iconography of nightmare were his hobbies, and even he had had the prudence to screen off some of his worst effigies in a special alcove for adults only. It was this alcove which had fascinated Jones so much. There were lumpish hybrid things which only fantasy could spawn, moulded with devilish skill, and coloured in a horribly life-like fashion.

Some were the figures of well-known myth - gorgons, chimaeras, dragons, cyclops, and all their shuddersome congeners. Others were drawn from darker and more furtively whispered cycles of subterranean legend - black, formless Tsathoggua, many-tentacled Cthulhu, proboscidian Chaugnar Faugn, and other rumoured blasphemies from forbidden books like the Necronomicon, the Book of Eibon, or the Unaussprechlichen Kulten of von Junzt. But the worst were wholly original with Rogers, and represented shapes which no tale of antiquity had ever dared to suggest. Several were hideous parodies on forms of organic life we know, while others seemed taken from feverish dreams of other planets and other galaxies.

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A museum in Montistat from "A Visit to the Museum" (Vladimir Nabokov, 1938)

A simple quest to retrieve an artifact from a small provincial museum in France morphs into a fantastical anxiety dream

Strangely, though, the expanse and motley only gave me a feeling of oppressiveness and imprecision, and, perhaps because new visitors kept dashing by or perhaps because I was impatient to leave the unnecessarily spreading museum and amid calm and freedom conclude my business negotiations with M. Godard, I began to experience a vague sense of alarm. Meanwhile we had transported ourselves into yet another hall, which must have been really enormous, judging by the fact that it housed the entire skeleton of a whale, resembling a frigate's frame; beyond were visible still other halls, with the oblique sheen of large paintings, full of storm clouds, among which floated the delicate idols of religious art in blue and pink vestments; and all this resolved itself in an abrupt turbulence of misty draperies, and chandeliers came aglitter and fish with translucent frills meandered through illuminated aquariums. Racing up a staircase, we saw, from the gallery above, a crowd of gray-haired people with umbrellas examining a gigantic mock-up of the universe.

At last, in a somber but magnificent room dedicated to the history of steam machines, I managed to halt my carefree guide for an instant.

"Enough!" I shouted. "I'm leaving. We'll talk tomorrow."

He had already vanished...Taking a sharp turn, I found myself amid a thousand musical instruments; the walls, all mirror, reflected an enfilade of grand pianos,while in the center there was a pool with a bronze Orpheus atop a green rock. The aquatic theme did not end here as, racing back, I ended up in the Section of Fountains and Brooks, and it was difficult to walk along the winding, slimy edges of those waters.

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The Wallinstone National Museum from Finnegans Wake (James Joyce, 1939)

Joyce's dense, multilevel dream novel includes a tour of a historical museum focusing on the exploits of the Duke of Wellington (also known as the Willingdone Museyroom), full of "Prooshious" objects. Joseph Campbell writes in A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake, "This Museum should be regarded as a kind of reliquary containing various mementoes symbolizing not only the eternal brother-conflict, but also the military and diplomatic encounters, exchanges and betrayals of recorded history." Or it may in fact be the "water loo" (outhouse) behind the protagonist's pub.

Penetrators are permitted into the museomound free...For her passkey supply to the janitrix, the mistress Kathe. Tip. This the way to the museyroom. Mind your hats goan in!
Now yiz are in the Willingdone Museyroom. This is a Prooshious gunn. This is a ffrinch. Tip. This is the flag of the Prooshius, the Cap and Soracer. This is the bullet that byng the flag of the Prooshious. This is the ffrinch that fire on the Bull that bang the flag of the Prooshious. Saloos the Crossgunn! Up with your pike and fork! Tip. (Bullsfoot! Fine!) This is the triplewon hat of Lipoleum. Tip. Lipoleumhat. This is the Willingdone on his same white harse, the Cokenhape. This is the big Sraughter Willingdone, grand and magentic in his goldtin spurs and his ironed dux and his quarterbrass woodyshoes and his magnate's gharters and his bangkok's best and goliar's goloshes and his pulluponeasyan wartrews. This is his big wide harse. Tip. This is the three lipoleum boyne grouching down in the living detch. This is an inimyskilling inglis, this is a scotcher grey, this is a davy, stooping. This is the bog lipoleum mordering the lipoleum beg. A Gallawghurs argaumunt. This is the petty lipoleum boy thatwas nayther bag nor bug. Assaye, assaye!...Mind your boots goan out. Phew!

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Skip's Museum from The Sirens of Titan (Kurt Vonnegut, 1959)

Many people have had childhood museums. In Vonnegut's novel, Winston Niles Roomford is a wealthy space traveler who is caught in a "chrono-synclastic infundibulum." Roomford is spread out across space and time but on occasion materializes in his palatial home. Malachi Constant, the richest and luckiest man in America, visits him during one of these materializations.

[Roomford] led the way down a back corridor and into a tiny room hardly larger than a big broom closet: It was ten feet long, six feet wide, and had a ceiling, like the rest of the rooms in the mansion, twenty feet high. The room was like a chimney. There were two wing chairs in it.
"An architectural accident--" said Rumfoord, closing the door and looking up at the ceiling.
"Pardon me?" said Constant.
"This room," said Rumfoord. With a limp right hand, he made the magical sign for spiral staircase. "It was one of the few things in life I ever really wanted with all my heart when I was a boy † this little room."
He nodded at shelves that ran six feet up the window wall. The shelves were beautifully made. Over the shelves was a driftwood plank that had written on it in blue paint: SKIP'S MUSEUM.
Skip's Museum was a museum of mortal remains -- of endoskeletons and exoskeletons † of shells, coral, bone, cartilage, and chitin -- of dottles and orts and residua of souls long gone. Most of the specimens were those that a child -- presumably Skip † could find easily on the beaches and in the woods of Newport. Some were obviously expensive presents to a child extraordinarily interested in the science of biology.
Chief among these presents was the complete skeleton of an adult human male.
There was also the empty suit of armor of an armadillo, a stuffed dodo, and the long spiral tusk of a narwhal, playfully labeled by Skip, "Unicorn Horn."
"Who is Skip?" said Constant.
"I am Skip," said Rumfoord. "Was."

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The museum of Fedora from "Cities and Desire 4" in Invisible Cities (Italo Calvino, 1972)

A town or city museum is a microcosm of its community and culture. In Invisible Cities, Calvino imagines Marco Polo spinning tales for Kublai Khan about the metaphysical communities that Polo has visited in his travels around the Khan's vast empire.

In the centre of Fedora, that grey stone metropolis, stands a metal building with a crystal globe in every room. Looking into each globe, you see a blue city, the model of a different Fedora. These are the forms the city could have taken if, for one reason or another, it had not become what we see today. In every age someone, looking at Fedora as it was, imagined a way of making it the ideal city, but while he constructed his miniature model, Fedora was already no longer the same as before, and what had until yesterday a possible future became only a toy in a glass globe.

The building with the globes is now Fedora's museum: every inhabitant visits it, chooses the city that corresponds to his desires, contemplates it, imagining his reflection in the medusa pond that would have collected the waters of the canal (if it had not been dried up), the view from the high canopied box along the avenue reserved for elephants (now banished from the city), the fun of sliding down the spiral, twisting minaret (which never found a pedestal from which to rise).

On the map of your empire, O Great Khan, there must be room both for the big, stone Fedora and the little Fedoras in glass globes. Not because they are all equally real, but because all are only assumptions. The one contains what is accepted as necessary when it is not yet so; the others, what is imagined as possible and, a moment later, is possible no longer.

Translated by William Weaver
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Unnamed museum from Gravity's Rainbow (Thomas Pynchon, 1973)

Who would have thought so many would be here? They keep appearing all through this disquieting structure, gathered in groups, pacing alone in meditation, or studying the paintings, the books, the exhibits. It seems to be some very extensive museum, a place of many levels, and new wings that generate like living tissue-though if it all does grow toward some end shape, those who are here inside can't see it. Some of the halls are to be entered at one's peril, and monitors are standing at all the approaches to make this clear. Movement among these passages is without friction, skimming and rapid, often headlong, as on perfect roller skates. Parts of the long galleries are open to the sea. There are cafes to sit in and watch the sunsets-or sunrises, depending on the hours of shifts and symposia. Fantastic pastry carts come by, big as pantechnicons: one has to go inside, search the numberless shelves, each revealing treats gooier and sweeter than the last.

Jenkin's Ear Museum from Mason & Dixon (Thomas Pynchon, 1997)

Robert Jenkins was an 18th century English mariner whose ear was rudely detached from its owner in an altercation with Spanish officials off the coast of Florida. Jenkins displayed the ear, preserved in a jar, to Parliament, thereby providing an excuse for the "War of Jenkins Ear" between England and Spain (1739-1748). In Pynchon's novel, set in the mid 1700s and written in the style of the time, English astronomer Charles Mason visits St. Helena, an isolated island in the middle of the Atlantic, to make some observations. He stumbles upon a little museum devoted to this historic relic.

He can smell the Town upon the Wind, the Smoke and Muck-Piles, long before he sees it. Awakening from a sort of Road-Trance, he finds himself before the Jenkin's Ear Museum, dedicated to the eponymous Organ whose timely Display brought England in against Spain in the War of '39. Not long after, Robert Jenkin went to work for the East India Company,-- many styl'd it a quid pro quo,-- being assign'd to St. Helena in '41 as Governor, and bringing with him the influential Ear, already by then encasqu'd in a little Show-case of Crystal and Silver, and pickl'd in Atlantick Brine. James's Town wove its Spell. Eventually, at Cards, Mr. Jenkin extended his Credit too far even for Honorable John. There remain'd the last unavoidable Object of Value, which he bet against what prov'd to be a Cross-Ruff, whence it pass'd into the Hands of Nick Mournival, an Enterpriser of the Town.

Mason is chagrin'd to find set in a low Wall a tiny Portico and Gate, no more than three feet high, with a Sign one must stoop to read,-- "Ear of Robt. Jenkin, Esq., Within." Clearly there must be some other entry, tho' Mason can find none, not even by repeated Jumps to see what lies over the Wall,-- to appearance, a garden gone to weeds. Reluctantly at last he takes to his elbows and knees, to investigate the diminutive Doorway at close hand,-- the Door, after a light Push, swinging open without a Squeak. Mason peers in. What Illumination there is reveals a sort of Ramp-way leading downward, with just enough height to crawl.

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Museum der Monstrositaten from Against the Day (Thomas Pynchon, 2006)

In this sprawling novel of airships, anarchists, the Wild West, and higher mathematics, three of the characters visit a museum that is to museums as imaginary numbers are to ordinary integers.

Having a day free, Kit, Yashmeen, and Gunther decided to make a farewell visit to the little-known but rewarding Museum der Monstrositaten, a sort of nocturnal equivalent of Professor Klein's huge collection of mathematical models on the third floor of the Auditorienhaus. They traveled in a motor-diligence out toward the Brocken. The brushland grew hilly and witchlike, clouds came from directions indeterminate and covered the sun. "An older sort of Germany," commented Gunther, with a less-than-reassuring smile. "Deeper."

It was not so much a conventional museum as a strange underground temple, or counter-temple, dedicated to the current "Crisis" in European mathematics . . . whether intended for exhibition, worship, study, or initiation could not be read from any exterior, because there was none, beyond an entranceway framing a flight of coal-black steps sloping downward in a fathomless tunnel to crypts unknown. As if to express the "imaginary" (or, as Clifford had termed it, "invisible") realm of numbers, the black substance from which it was constructed seemed not so much a known mineral as the residue of a nameless one, after light, through some undisclosed process, had been removed. Now and then a load-bearing statue was visible in the form of an angel, wings, faces, and garments streamlined almost to pure geometry, and brandishing weapons somehow not yet decipherable, featuring electrodes and cooling fins and so forth.

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The Barnum Museum (Steven Millhauser, 1987)

This incorporeal edifice is named after P.T. Barnum, proprietor of the American Museum in New York (1841-1865), a five-story structure filled with dioramas, animals, human oddities, and educational exhibits. Unencumbered by the laws of physics and biology, Millhauser's Barnum Museum has a Hall of Mermaids, three subterranean levels, a Chamber of False Things, and myriad other enchantments that make it beyond doubt the grandest of all literary museums, a "soaring structure of words." It may be said that the story is not about the museum; the story is the museum.

The Barnum Museum is located in the heart of our city, two blocks north of the financial district. The Romanesque and Gothic entranceways, the paired sphinxes and griffns, the gilded onion domes, the corbeled turrets and mansarded towers, the octagonal cupolas, the crestings and crenellations, all these compose an elusive design that seems calculated to lead the eye restlessly from point to point without permitting it to take in the whole. In fact the structure is so difficult to grasp that we cannot tell whether the Barnum Museum is a single complex building with numerous wings, annexes, additions, and extensions, or whether it is many buildings artfully connected by roofed walkways, stone bridges, flowering arbors, booth-lined arcades, colonnaded passageways.

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First published in Grand Street, Vol. 6, No. 4 (Summer, 1987), pp. 18-34
Reprinted in The Barnum Museum (1990) and We Others: New & Selected Stories (2011)
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