Making a Musaeum Clausum

Let's be clear: I don't know any Latin.

This exhibit was inspired by a wonderfully obscure 2012 article in the Public Domain Review entitled Lost Libraries. In the article, Dr. Claire Preston investigates a 17th century fake catalogue of "remarkable books, antiquities, pictures and rarities of several kinds, scarce or never seen by any man now living" compiled by English scholar Thomas Browne.

My first impression upon finishing the article was that this catalogue, titled Musaeum Clausum [The Hidden Library], was totally bonkers. I was skeptical even having read Preston's conclusion that this book and others like it reflected Rennaissance anxieties about lost cultural resources (like the contents of the Library at Alexandria) and also poked fun at the gullibility of the elites (or wannabes) who curated private collections of curiosities.

Who would take the time to create an entire bibliography of non-existent books, an whole inventory of imaginary artifacts?

But as I thought more about it and brainstormed what type of collection I might want to make into an Omeka exhibit for my Digital History project, I realized that this idea isn't really that odd. I've encountered many examples of a literary technique known as the "false document." It's employed to create an illusion of authenticity (what a contradiction in terms!). P.K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle would be nothing without The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, even though the latter is not real and does not exist anywhere outside the book's world. But when engaged as a reader, I want it to be real and believe it to be real, and I find this fascinating.

Similarly, there is something about an online exhibit's inherent illusory affectation of authenticity that I find frustrating. It's cool to look at, even to hear, objects in a digital exhibit. It makes the objects seem more accessible. But in no way is it the real deal, a collection of tangible items, a 100% accurate representation of real objects that exist in a real world. To be sure, those objects do, more often than not, exist out there somewhere. But the web is not a physical space in that sense, and an online exhibit is at best a placeholder for a depiction of actual objects.

It is not a faithful representation of the real world.

In creating an Omeka exhibit, then, no matter what topic I chose, I would be creating my own Musaeum Clausum- a catalogue of non-existent things. So I might as well make an exhibit of other non-existent things.



Cynthia Heider