Curated and hosted by husband and wife, Scott and Jen Webel, the Museum of Natural and Artificial Ephemerata is a knowing yet earnest homage to the dime museums and crowd-pleasing sideshows of P. T. Barnum, from an era when popular culture was being formed in the streets and boardwalks of an industrializing age.
According to the Webels, the seed of the collection came from a box of curiosities that once belonged to Scott’s great-granduncle, Rolls Joyce, Jr., who began a “museum of museum forms” in Tucson, Arizona, with Madame Mercury Curie in the ’20s.
At the museum, you can find a mix of wonders from the natural world: a stuffed pygmy kangaroo, a narwhal tooth replica, a crocodile that cries crocodile tears, and a double-headed chick. There are also pieces to please the celebrity chaser: a lock of Elvis’ hair, a chocolate eyeball from George W. Bush, a single strand of Willie Nelson’s hair, and the butt of the last cigarette smoked by Marilyn Monroe.
Along with these valuable pieces, the collection is full of unexpected sights and visual puns, as your personal tour guides, Scott and Jen themselves, explain the possibly dubious origins of each item with a straightforward and charismatic delivery. The tour is a part of the collection at the museum and a performance you unwittingly participate in as attendee.
Installed in their current home, the museum has bounced around various parts of Austin as the couple moved, now landing on the East side, where the Webels have bought the house and presumably settled on a more permanent location for the “impermanent collection.” They originally gave tours to only two or three people at a time, but now have two rooms and a garden dedicated to their growing and ever-shifting collection.
As studied and in on the joke as its curators may be, the collection at the Museum of Natural and Artificial Ephemerata is sincerely fascinating and full of the kinds of twists and wonders that crowds accepted and delighted in before an era obsessed with alleged proof, facts, and origins. Or to hear it more articulately from the curators: “Each of these historic forms of collection dealt the public a stacked deck, playing games with the tensions between truth and falsehood, nature and culture, life and death.”
The Museum of Ephemerata and its stewards will continue to be in the ongoing pursuit of the question, “Where does the museum end and real life begin?”
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