Susan Malmstrom is an artist specializing in digitally produced photography. She grew up in California, receiving a Master of Fine Arts in Visual Arts from the University of California at Irvine, and has lived in Canada since 2004. Her life’s work manifests a sense of wonder, an insatiable curiosity, a love of memorabilia, an obsession with strangeness, and a delightfully twisted sense of humour. (Check out her amazing portfolios here.)
Her current project, The Repository of Wonders, is a traveling exhibition built around the remnants of a 19th museum collection “inherited” from a fictitious Dr. Mycenae T. Consonant, daughter of an Egyptologist and an archaeologist, who earned degrees in archaeology and art history before embarking on the lifelong adventure of building her own museum collection, traveling the world to collect artifacts before eventually going down with the Lusitania. Susan Malmstrom, now the museum’s curator, recently took the time to answer Wanda Waterman’s questions about what brought her to such an unusual undertaking. (Read Part I of this interview here.)
“It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key.”
– Winston Churchill
“You’re wrong. She is a phony. But on the other hand You’re right. She isn’t a phony because She’s a real phony. She believes all this crap she believes. You can’t talk her out of it.”
– Truman Capote, from Breakfast at Tiffany’s
The Threat of the Unreal
I think the strangest thing about this project?and it seems to happen every time It’s installed?is the reaction of some people. Most people not only “get” The Repository, but they really get into it and spend a lot of time reading all of the material. They especially enjoy the intended humour behind it.
Others seem to want things overly explained to them; or worse, they become angry at the thought that an artist is trying to deceive them. This doesn’t happen a lot, but just enough to make it interesting. It’s still a little unnerving when an adult person walking into an arts installation wants so badly for things to be obvious and “real” that the displays are somehow threatening to them.
Someone had sent me a link to one of those silly websites where you type in your name and it comes back with your porn name, or whatever. I typed “Susan Malmstrom” into this one, and it came back “Mycenae Consonant”; I don’t remember what it was supposed to represent, but I loved the sound of it. So when I decided that my museum had originally been run by an amazing globe-trotting Edwardian-era artifact collector, I used that name, which makes sense, based on her interest in antiquities.
Getting in Character: Steeping in Steampunk
To write about her and the objects of the museum I have to be reading the right literature, so I immerse myself in books like Arthur Conan Doyle: A Life in Letters by Daniel Stashower, Jon Lellenberg and Charles Foley, or The Art of Rough Travel: From the Peculiar to the Practical, Advice From A 19th Century Explorer by Sir Francis Galton. It’s such a fascinating era that I have no problem going there.
A Love of Objects and Exploration
Mycenae’s great love of objects and their stories were in her DNA (before they even knew what DNA was). Her mother, who didn’t survive her birth, was an ardent amateur archaeologist, and her father was an Egyptologist and the curator of The New Museum of the Pacific. After his death, she inherited many objects from his personal collection and started her own, which became The New Museum of the Pacific: A Repository of Wonders.
Women were actually doing a lot of exploring during that period. People like journalist Nellie Bly (Elizabeth Jane Cochrane), or archaeologist Katherine Routledge, or writer Alexandra David-Néel?I could go on and on, because there are plenty of examples of women who followed their dreams and made history during this era. And I don’t think the world is any less sexist now! In fact, there are parts of the planet that are even more dangerous to travel through.
When I read about these women explorers, I can’t imagine the kind of danger they put themselves in time after time, and the myriad creature comforts they would have had to forego. So while I completely admire these women, I come up woefully short in the seeking-adventure realm. I do all my exploring through books and short jaunts, and I have an amazing inner life! Maybe someday. It’s certainly something to aspire to.
If you could tell us about the most amazing object with the most amazing story in the Repository, what would it be?
That’s like choosing which of your children is your favorite. I will say that one of the crowd-pleasers is the pair of military dress gloves that once (purportedly) belonged to Edgar Allan Poe during his ill-fated stint at West Point Military Academy. (If anyone wants the full story, they can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
What’s your next project?
I’m adding another series to The Repository, which is The Hall of Once-Famous Personages, a series of portraits. we’re also currently working on an extensive catalogue for The Repository, including a section on the lives of the original staff, through their letters, diaries, and press clippings.
A Parting Word?
Everyone should, at some time, have one’s own museum. It’s the most wonderful way to live your life.