The Museum Of Important Incidents

photo by Timothy X Atack


The Museum of Important Incidents was established some years ago (precisely when is unimportant) in order to celebrate the truth.

Fame and infamy and the works of so-called significant persons are often bright and noisy; often lauded as the ‘course of history’. But they have their own museums. Instead, we founded an institution to catalogue the things that happened in the gloom beyond those lights, that made their own music beneath the trumpets and horns. We did not want to ignore the big pains; the terrible memories; the world-wide horrible lies. But at the same time, we felt the people needed a place to go and appreciate themselves, to see their own faces and thoughts, and not the big killings and the magnanimous gestures, the banquets or garlands or first-time discoveries, the endless piles of money and weapons. So we began to make plans for where and how we might build our museum.

It was difficult, of course. The first people who complained were men. Many men. Perhaps this is unsurprising to you, but long ago men discovered that the nozzle that dangles between their thighs was some part of what makes a child, and since then have spent most of their time claiming that these wobbly tubies are the single most important things in the world. They don’t always do this in a straightforwardly fashion, but secretly their talk on almost any subject is to do with this very particular one subject. For instance we currently have a man in charge of America who does nothing but talk of his own appendage, and a surprising number of people think, somehow, it’s politics. It’s become a bit of a bore. So perhaps our first rule of the Museum of Important Incidents was that no phalluses would be included, or at least, none of them should be immediately visible.

This was not enjoyed by many people who owned phalluses, but especially not by those who behaved as though they might be made entirely of phallus. It’s possible they would have been content had we filled a large number of rooms in our establishment with dangling bombs or tastefully arranged assortments of rifles, or models of future tower blocks higher than the moon, struck by lightning and yet untroubled, impervious to the highest wind, deathless, rigid, etcetera.

But to their dismay, our subsequent primary rules were: no bombs. No guns. No killers, human or otherwise. No pictures of wars, no matter how artful. No megadeaths. No trampled populations. No scourging fires. No skyscrapers. What then, asked our detractors, what then will this cockamamie museum consist of? What will people come to look at? Dust? Darkness? Hydrogen?

In fact the earliest curated part of the museum was a wing of the building devoted entirely to in-jokes: to laughter between friends, jokes that made no sense to anyone but those who shared them. These jokes being in any way funny was not a condition of inclusion. We catalogued them with merciless accuracy and detail, and displayed them on a rotating basis. It’s often pointed out that some of the more oblique and memorable of these in-jokes did find their way onto popular t-shirts and crockery, but the museum did not instigate the merchandise and neither condoned nor condemned its sale.

The second major group of people to make mass representations against the Museum Of Important Incidents were artists, who felt that a true account of importance could not be made without reference to art. This of course is some downright woolly thinking. The museum had art coming out of its ears. It was simply that only a tiny amount of it was made by professional artists, and anything by a professional artist that we did put on display was work that had been made by mistake.

Nowhere was this more apparent than in our extremely popular Chamber Of Rusted Things, where time had played tricks on the mind. The onlooker was convinced of patterns, expositions and intentions in the objects on display, whereas the only important agencies at work were physics, chemistry, and the aforementioned onlooker. For instance there were brash warning signs and municipal exhortations, all rendered unreadable, or their messages changed through the oxidisation of letters or whole words. If the chamber contained a temple god, it was a god eaten up beyond recognition, jaws unhinged, become some sad clownish creature. There were segments of huge unplaceable constructions. There were open pots of paint, encrusted and discoloured, which some well-regarded painters took as a direct insult to their craft. Our resident Professor of Rust, a young woman from New Delhi – perhaps the world’s foremost city of rust – was for a time the most reviled woman in the arts and the study of the arts. We are happy to report she survived the opprobrium and is now living happily in Japan, where her ideas are appreciated (albeit in moderation.)

It was this kind of controversy that made it easy for our detractors to argue against our public funding. Unfortunately for them we had never received any public funding, because we were not considered important – nor rigorous, nor accessible. Apparently our activities could not be conducive to communal well-being or a sense of national identity, because nothing of what we provided could be measured. We also found it extremely difficult to obtain private funding because by definition a museum of truly important things is generally unattractive to people who have become rich by design.

A notable exception to this was the international pop star who for thirteen months provided us with funds to create a Usual Noises Room, where any member of the public could deposit a noise they considered usual plus associated metadata. It was then possible to press buttons around the room and release each unique noise, or a great many simultaneously. Unfortunately a visit by the pop star to the room at a particularly busy time of day, involving hundreds of children, resulted in the immediate cessation of the grant.

But through donations, support in kind and good will we somehow kept the massive operation afloat. It helped that we had no obligation to anyone but our public, and the upkeep of truly important material came with certain caveats; to be genuinely important our exhibits had to be subject to loss. Much of the museum was open-air, and maintained without any official security. That felt in keeping with our ethos… but after several years we began to realise that for all our care we’d left one everyday subject, death, without a permanent home. No-one working at the museum had ever remarked upon it before. It was almost as if we’d done it deliberately. A few fraught meetings later, it was decided that as a solution we would put up an enormous sign apologising for the lack of a death wing, explaining that such a gallery within the museum would have to be infinite, making it impossible for mortal beings to comprehend, and therefore curate. Our public protested. Having been made aware of our oversight, they wanted it corrected. Overwhelmingly they considered our justifications to be weak excuses, a lack of ambition of the worst kind – and rightly so. But we found it almost impossible to address importance in death without also evoking some extremely overinflated and self-aggrandising aspects of life.

Some of the – increasingly desperate – suggestions for the best way of creating a death exhibition included
a) creating a room with no lights and no floor
b) filling a room alternately with fire, earth, wind, and water
c) hiding the exhibit but making it extremely loud
d) building an enormous clock that made absolutely no sense
e) abandoning the entire museum altogether, suddenly and without warning, at some randomly acquired date.

The solution we eventually came to was inevitable, and also by some margin the single most unpopular thing we had done as far as the authorities were concerned. We put living people on display.

As much as possible we made it an ethically sound experience for those exhibited. And our position was: to all extents and purposes, death is put on display in almost every museum in some fashion in every part of the world, often for the purposes of tourism. But it seems the crucially unacceptable element was our detailing the most important, most factual aspects of the impending deaths involved. We addressed, moment by moment, point by point, inescapable truth by inescapable truth, why the ends were approaching.

Simply sat or laid out around the room, or walking around if able to, the manner of death was written upon each body in as many languages as could fit.

Sometimes photographs of the body at an earlier point were provided, so as to illustrate the process.

Some bodies lasted longer than others, of course. Some were salaried. Others were employed on a freelance basis, sometimes they volunteered.

The dead were moved as soon as was possible, with decorum but without visible ritual.

What we did not anticipate and could not have measured beforehand was how rapidly the authorities considered this a political act. It seemed that no matter what part chance or fate or basic bad luck played in the fate of our exhibits, any associated social facts would be argued by commentators or officials or other actors for the establishment – claiming that we had it wrong, or that our facts were the wrong facts, or that we were obscuring the most important truths. Death was no business for collectors and the cultural elite, they said. Death was something that should be given respect, kept private, not paraded around for everyone to gawp at. They accused us of ‘using’ death. They called it undignified, then they called it inhumane, then they called it abhorrent, then they called it evil, then things really escalated. Men turned up to the exhibition hall and denounced the museum, shouting alternative stories about the dying, some of them extremely unfavourable, slanderous. The families of the exhibited were often in attendance in the death wing, and violence broke out. An already weak heart gave; we had our first death not within the exhibition but caused by it, and we realised the museum’s end had come. If we didn’t bring it about ourselves, the powerful now had their excuse.

The natural inclination of course was to activate plan e) and simply run away, leaving the museum to the winds and the crows and the dancing rust. But no, we thought, therein lies too much satisfaction for the men made mostly of phallus.

Instead, under cover of darkness over the course of one astonishing night, we disassembled the entire site and had our collection randomly donated to any household, any dive bar, any kitchen cabinet or attic that could contain a small part of us. As in life, the Museum Of Important Incidents’ death was accompanied by sheer good will and a generally happy, if slightly confused, accommodation. You’ll see us everywhere you go. Back in the olden days you might not find a rusting god for sale in a roadside shop, these days they’re all over the place, the world better for it: accidental art, patterns without intentions. Noises rattle about the cities, sudden warbles, clanging nonsense from out of nowhere, nowadays considered usual, but every one of those sound-offs unique. And of course the lunatics are still in charge but there’s so much they can’t control. I’m sure you’ll agree that in modern times you hear plenty more in-jokes than ever before. That’s us. That’s us, and our friends. Times were hard but in the end, we released the jokes into the wild like butterflies. In the end we knew what was important.