Only after the fact, after I finished writing my first book did I appreciate that this amalgam of book form of half-truths, strange unbelievable tales in lists, half-formed sentences, and snippets of tiny articles and everything else sort of resembled a low-tech version of the Internet itself.
And only after discovering that did I appreciate that what it really resembled was a low-tech version of the Internet that preceded it, the old Farmer’s Almanac, the North American Almanac, the Worlds of Wisdom, the People’s Almanac, and all of those books that existed to collect these folkloric bits of story and factoid before the Internet came along to take over that business.
What’s your favorite museum? What would be in the John Hodgman Museum?
Walking around the Hall of Presidents in the National Portrait Gallery was really remarkable. Those are the iconic images that you certainly have of the earliest Presidents, even the later presidents as well; those are the pictures that get etched in your mind that define those human beings as they recede from human-ness into their weird status of civil/secular half-god Presidency. That’s remarkable to actually see those images of Lincoln and Washington and Jefferson and particularly Grover Cleveland. What American does not know that painting by heart?
What would I put in a museum? Probably a museum! That’s an amusing relic of our past. Apparently we no longer need to go to museums to commune with the authentic relics of an actual past. We are more than happy to just make up the facts for ourselves these days.
You write, as John Hodgman – an exaggerated form of the former professional literary agent – that “Reality, while generally probable, is not always interesting.” And albeit a humorous line, there is some truth to it. So how do museums and institutions of learning make reality interesting?
There was a work of art that was commissioned by the gallery; it was essentially a diorama that attempted to replicate the museum itself if not in its direct form. [David Beck’s MVSEVM] That was the most remarkable thing I’ve seen in years, because it represents the reality of the museum as filtered through a creative mind. I just found it to be so maniacally meticulous that it stirred every cockle in me. It was fantastic.
Stephen Colbert, coiner of the word “truthiness,” a word that fits your two volumes of “facts” nicely, had his portrait hung in the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery next to the Hall of Presidents, in between the bathrooms. Did he belong there?
When is there going to be a picture of me?
I do not think that a museum needs to engage with pop culture in order to make itself interesting to museumgoers. Museums are already interesting and engaging with pop culture for its own sake is just a quick way to seem and become dated. While Colbert will certainly stand the test of time, there are many others even John Hodgman who will not. That said, museums are intrinsically interesting, but what museums lack, and what I think is more important, in the museum experience is a sense of humor, a sense of play. Not necessarily a lot of jokes, but a sense of whimsy, much like that model, much like hanging Stephen Colbert over by the bathrooms. That’s not an effective exhibit because it references something that’s on TV right now, that’s an effective exhibit because it’s a great joke. And great jokes are perhaps the most enduring stories that we have in humanity; they last as long as any great novel, and people will respond to a great joke no matter what.