Interview: The Faux Museum

Last week we celebrated the one year anniversary of our neighbor, The Faux Museum. Check out our interview with conceptual artist, curator, and owner, Tom Richards.

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Duplex: Give us a brief history of the development of the Faux Museum.
Tom Richards: Twenty years ago I was living in Manhattan and I loved it of course but I was surprised by how much litter was on the street. I had a beautiful walk everyday. I walked from east 14th between B and C to the far corner of Soho {Wooster @ Grand}. I’d never been to New York before I moved there, so the language they used and the different atmosphere was pretty crazy. They say soda they don’t say pop, they say bag they never say sack. There were other things, but I was fascinated by the stuff on the ground. There were a lot of bags on the ground. I started a history of the paper bag in my apartment. I had this faux history up there that a few friends saw. I don’t know if you ever noticed, but I like that sometime the bags say “inspected by Susie.” So it’s like “hey Susie, I got your bag. Way to catch those folds!” I had this history so I thought I could do anything I wanted. I can make up anything. My partner and I decided to come back to Portland so when I got back, I started the Faux Museum in the New Market Theatre building on Ash Street. I did it for about a year and then my partner needed an operation, so I had to go back to a job with insurance, but always with the thought that I would start the museum again. It just took 20 years. In fact, I was trying to convince this reporter for a national publication that I wasn’t closing. Finally he went over there and it was closed, and of course he couldn’t run the article if the museum was closed. So that was kind of a bummer. The magazine was Seventeen, which was pretty funny.

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For my first show, I charged $1.00 for adults, 75 cents for seniors, and $1.50 for children under 16 and $5.50 for the generally obnoxious. I did get one guy who wanted to pay $5.50 once, he wasn’t obnoxious. The show was called the Gates of Hell. The people down at Saturday market were a little afraid of it. Some of the gates were Watergate, Contragate and Envirogate. I had one exhibit that about litter, I was looking at all the cigarette butts in front of the museum and thought, “how many cigarette butts are there?” So I did some statistical research and figured out how long each cigarette butt is, how many people smoke in the world and figured out that the cigarette butts could reach from the earth to the moon eight times and back in a single year. I had this earth and moon with cigarette butts that went all the way around it for part of the Envirogate. I had a show called Presidential Briefs, the underwear of the presidents and a lot of political stuff back then.

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D: Tell us about your current exhibitions, you have three?
TR: I have the 10,000 Year History, which I will leave up most of the time because it gives people an idea of what the museum is when they come in. It has a whole 10,000 years of history of my family and the discovery. I of course didn’t discover it until 20 years ago when I went to Manhattan. I looked in my parent’s attic and there it was, the whole history of the museum.

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I’ve always been a person who does a lot of research; I am actually a librarian. I have a master’s degree in library science. So I did a lot of research about people coming to North America, the glaciers, and the animals at that time. It’s all very interesting to me. So that’s how I came up with the Wooly Ant.

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D: Your faux history actually has a really strong real history backbone.
TR: Right, it does. I try to do that with everything because the museum is actually a critical thinking museum. It’s a conceptual art museum of course, but it a critical thinking museum with a sense of humor. So I tried to put as much truth in as I can. But everyday people question if it’s real.

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D: That is interesting because in all museums, all the information is just an interpretation, visitors should think critically about what is presented.
TR: Exactly, and not just in museums but everything and that’s what I would like to get visitors to do. When someone is “dumb” and asks if there was really a Wooly Ant, I really love that. Some people don’t know they shouldn’t ask that. Then there are people who are too cool to ask questions, even if they are not sure. Someone wrote that the exhibition had holes in it, that it wasn’t finished very well. But they just didn’t get the concept of the idea of a set, like a play or opera.

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D: In your exhibits, you are removing the distance you have when you look at a set on a stage. If you were to get up close you can see the construction. That it is not real.
TR: You can see that it is not a real tree, it all paper. The other exhibition is the Sound Pods. I had this idea called Whole Lot of Love. I have this handheld recorder and I record a lot of sounds. I originally wanted to do was record every sound that I possibly could and modulate those sounds to do the song, Whole Lot of Love. That turned out to be extremely hard, impossible for me. So I took all these sounds and videos and mashed them together. So that’s how that sound pod came to be. The screaming sound pod ties into the history of the museum because these were found 9,500 years ago and they are the root of all sound.

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The bamboo one is where you can get answers to questions. It usually has these high-pitched ethereal sounds that play when you hit the bamboo, but it is not working right now. (It is working again) So I have to make up another story, which is good for me. I have to just go with the flow, things happen all the time. The exhibition, The Seventh Dimension, I wanted people to have fun. Like a tree house, like a tunnel, like a kid’s fort and to ask questions about what is real and about ways of seeing. When you move to a new city, you see stuff that people that live there don’t even see. They just don’t even see it anymore. So that’s what that exhibition is about. It’s about ways of thinking about ways of seeing and about having fun. I had different people make some art, the crystals were made by one of my volunteers (Jessica Brackett) and the art in the case were made by these 6 to 8 year old sisters. All I told them was it was the 7th dimension. They just made it, they were so creative.

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D: What is your 7th dimension name?
TR: Trippy Thang.
D: Mine was Jaggy Johnson.
TR: These kids that came in, they were 5 and 9, they had just learned all the words for penis, and so they were really excited about Johnson. Their names were all something Johnson.

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D: One of my favorite things about the text is the rewarding humor. You are talking about very complex histories and then there are some great one-liners. It all the sudden breaks the historical mood. There is a nice voice to the whole text, which you don’t find in a lot of traditional museums.
TR: Because they don’t want to offend people by not getting the humor.

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I didn’t really read until my mid 20s until one day I found The Fountainhead in a phone booth, and thought, “this is a sign.” I read the Fountainhead, and actually liked and related to it. Then I read War and Peace next. That was my second book; I really went all in. I was so proud of myself; I thought I could read anything now. I was telling someone about this, it was Lena Lencek, I didn’t really know her, but she is a teacher at Reed. It came up that I read War and Peace and she goes, “how many times have you read it?” I have never read it more than once, but I started reading a lot and didn’t stop. I went to school at UW and got a master’s in Library science and stayed in Seattle. I worked for the Seattle Art Museum as a librarian and loved it but they paid horribly and had no benefits, but I loved it. Then I was working for the city as a librarian, made more money and had benefits but hated it because they don’t care about books, it was all about delivery systems.

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I wrote a couple of books, and I got some people to read them and they really liked them but they said “I don’t know who’s gonna read this book.” And they were right, I realized I could work more on my book, but maybe 500 people would read it, and 17 of those people would be in the U.S. and they would be my friends. But anyway, I like when people talk about the writing.

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All these comedians came in one day from a comedy festival (The Groundlings)  and we were talking about the writing, asking a lot of questions and if I wrote it. It turns out one of the guys was a producer on Glee and another guy was Oscar Nunez from the Office. They were really nice, but I didn’t know who they were. That’s the only thing that has impressed my son about The Faux Museum.

D: Going through the museum, I had initially thought you were a writer.
TR: I used to write about art, I had this column called Last First Thursday in the paper, Paperback Jukebox. One of my favorite artists was shown at Elizabeth Leech, Amanda Fin. She had the best artist statement. Art is the thought that you put into it that is just as important as the other part. In fact you can have all thought and nothing else. So I think that writing is important, or at least thinking about writing.

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D: Do your visitors draw comparisons to other museums?
TR: I do occasionally get compared to the Museum of Jurassic Technology or they find these other museums throughout the United States and I wish I could go to all them.
D: Have you pursued going to any of them?
TR: No because I am always working! I have a few volunteers, but basically I am here 12 hours a day, 6 or 7 days a week and have been for a year, and I have a teenage son at home. It’s been a lot of work. But more people are coming in so that’s good.

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D: The tourism around Old Town is sort of surprising; I didn’t realize how many tourists come here to Old Town.
TR: Tourists are not afraid of Old Town, its just Portlanders who are afraid of Old Town.

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(Walking through the tunnels) A lot of these drawings were done by Joe Sacco, a graphic novelist. We did a magazine together in the mid 80’s.

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D: When you conceptualize building these installations, do you commission friends or do you do it all yourself? What is your process?
TR: Before I tried to do everything myself, but this time I tried to get as much help as I could. Usually you ask 10 people, 3 people say yes and only 1 shows up. That’s the way it is. Some of my volunteers are really good.

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D: How do you find your volunteers?
TR: Well two of them, Jessica and Jennifer (Ziegler), came from Kansas City and they were lost and stumbled in for directions. But they loved it immediately and they asked if they could volunteer. There are a few people that are like that; Mark (Shepherd), who does a lot of my posters, is the same way. He went through, he came out and asked how he could help. Molly (McGraw) found the museum online and came down to help. Allison is the sound artist, a noise artist; she does all the sound work. I came up with the concept and sort of composed it, but I couldn’t have put it together. So I need a lot of people, otherwise I have to do the stuff myself. I don’t get enough volunteers, but the ones I have kind of rock.

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D: What’s next at the Faux Museum?
TR: My next show, in the fall, is a carnival. My take on a school carnival, so it will be really odd.

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The museum is open Tuesday through Sunday. See more photos here.

4 Comments

  1. allison b-t

    i love this concept- thanks for sharing! i can’t wait to make a visit and spend some time exploring everything.

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