How do you make a museum out of things that don’t exist? What’s the line between fact and fiction? 2014 5CollDH microgrant recipient Emily Esten (UMass–Amherst Junior) built a “Museum of Forbidden Technologies,” inspired by the popular podcast Welcome to Night Vale to ask just those questions. Learn more, in her own words:
Welcome to Night Vale is a bimonthly podcast structured very much like a radio station, announcing community updates for a small desert town somewhere in the United States. But there’s something a little different about the world of Night Vale – it’s a place where the government is practically transparent in its surveillance, where a glow cloud is both all-powerful and a member of the School Board, and where dark hooded figures roam the forbidden dog park. (You can listen to the podcast here.) As a fan of the show, one of my favorite Night Vale locales is the Museum of Forbidden Technologies. The Museum has only been mentioned in a handful of episodes, but essentially, it’s the complete opposite of a museum. Visitors cannot actually see or experience the exhibits, because all of the artifacts are covered in thick burlap sacks at all times, with blacked-out explanatory facts. How do you display something in a museum that isn’t actually displayable in its physical form? Well, that sounded like a challenge.
I started with some ground rules:
- I wanted to use as much of the language of Jeffrey Cranor and Joseph Fink as possible. Night Vale is, first and foremost, their creation, and I wanted my fan project to contribute to what they were doing rather than detract from it.
- I wanted it to use the language and structure of an actual museum as much as possible. Though it’s a fan project, I wanted to make it look and feel like Omeka sites of real libraries and museum. That included following Dublin Core metadata, using Library of Congress authority headings, and including standard museum information.
- I wanted to balance the weirdness of Night Vale with the professionalism of a science and technology museum.
Having some experience with Omeka and eager to work with Raspberry Pis for the physical exhibition space, I was really excited about the possibilities present in this project. I got to take some liberties with the material (note that all of the featured Time Machines are from my favorite time-travel related movies) and I mostly worked with Wikimedia Commons to find my images (thank you Creative Commons licenses!), but the fun part was actually writing the exhibition pieces.
But of course, as part of my reflection, I learned a lot.
- Time: Despite creating a lot of checklists and mapping things out as I started planning the MFT, I didn’t always account for the amount of time the little things take. I agonized for an hour over how to word specific phrases or in finding the right picture for a pocket calculator. And trying to figure out how to work the Raspberry Pi, even when you have a step-by-step guide, takes a little more effort than I expected. I’ll definitely keep that in mind for my next DH project.
- Research: Curating a fake museum is rough work! The first two months of the project were strictly me collecting information and looking into other Omeka sites to get an idea of what I wanted the Museum of Forbidden Technologies to look like. My search history ranged from The Oatmeal comic on Tesla to fan-created Tumblrs to Flickr, and everything in between. But you’d be surprised how much weird, trivial information is available on the Internet as well – I learned about the history of pocket calculators, all of Tesla’s patents, and of course, a lot about Night Vale canon.
- Dealing with Canon: One of my favorite exhibits to work with in Omeka was “Time Machines,” if only because it allowed me to look some of my favorite time-travel related movies. I thought this was going to be an easy exhibit to put together – but then Night Vale canon changed when time travel was once again legalized. I realized this would be an interesting opportunity for the museum, and one probably relevant to a lot of real museums. What do you do if you’re a haven of forbidden technology and now have a number of artifacts that aren’t forbidden? I decided to take it in a slightly different direction, focusing on the events of a Time Traveler who actually came to Night Vale in one of the episodes.
Currently the museum website is up and running with all the initial elements of the project. The next step is using the Raspberry Pis I’ve configured and some other materials I’ve collected to put the museum on as an exhibition. While this part of the process is still underway, I’m really excited to share the museum so far and hope I can continue tinkering with the project as Welcome to Night Vale evolves. As the slogan of the museum goes, “The Museum of Forbidden Technologies: If you don’t know about it, we may or may not have it!”