On Ghosts

The Museum of Natural and Artificial Ephemerata

On view through Saturday, May 3
by Jen Hirt and Scott Webel

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      Image of a haunted house drawn by a museum visitor
      Included in the Ghosts exhibition

      View Gallery

      When we decided to curate the Ghosts community exhibition at the in-home Museum of Ephemerata as a follow up to Animals, we were wary of the forces we had chosen to evoke. Every theme transforms our lives: by the end of Animals, we had adopted two kittens, tamed eight backyard feral cats and installed an aquarium in the parlor. By collecting representations of spirits, would the Museum really become haunted? Whenever we mentioned the new theme, people launched into ghost stories, feeding our ominous feelings about the squadron of spirits about to fly into our lives. We recorded these Austin ghost stories to make an audio display accessible on headphones, and documented a curator-led tour of Ghosts as disembodied voices that you can hear on our website.

      But our plan to contain the ghosts in their ghost stories fell apart as soon as we won the Haunted Doll from Ohio in an eBay auction. When the Haunted Doll arrived in the mail, one of our kittens started obsessively scratching and mewing at the Museum doors. Whenever he snuck in, we’d find him next to the doll, purring. Several Museum visitors who self-identified as psychics were also drawn to the doll. One psychic, holding her open hand a few inches from the doll’s cracked face, asked, “Do you ever see the eyes moving on their own?"

      One Saturday, we gave a tour to a boy who seemed extra-sensitive to our voices, gestures and stories. After the tour, Jen offered him some sidewalk chalk to add to the orb spheres she was drawing on the front porch. He sketched an elaborate haunted house, complete with ghost-infested graveyard, then asked Scott to take him back into the exhibition. Staring wide-eyed at the TV and its floating Pac-man ghosts, the boy exclaimed, “Did you see that? One of them just flew out of the screen!”

      Early in the show, an anonymous visitor spotted and photographed a miniature UFO floating inside the Ghosts Road diorama! Soon after, a friend stopped by for a tour, and the diorama manifested a second paranormal aspect. As an adaptation of the Victorian era Pepper’s Ghost stage illusion, the diorama needs a black shroud to keep the white ceiling above viewers from reflecting in the pane of glass that invisibly overlays the little forest scene. Our friend saw a white orb float down from the shroud to disappear inside the Language Master audio machine on a nearby shelf. After this initial sighting, more and more visitors saw orbs floating around the Museum, and we successfully photographed at least two manifestations.

      So did the Ghosts exhibition make the Museum haunted? By making ghosts themselves visible, we learned that the museum had always been a ghost, haunting our contemporary world with the spirit of dead forms of collecting. We should hang a sign on our door – Warning: ghosts of Wunderkammern and Dime Museums inside!

      Jen Hirt is an art teacher and Scott Webel is a writer and anthropology PhD student. They are the founders and curators of the Museum of Natural & Artificial Ephemerata.

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