The Mobile Museum of American Artifacts (MMOAA) is a collection of items whose value is determined by the story connected to them. Laurelin Kruse collected objects and their stories and put them into her gallery: a freshly-painted trailer with white walls and simple shelves, pulled by a gold-colored pick-up truck. The gallery wobbles when you walk through it, the way all trailers do. The artifacts are meticulously curated and placed alongside informational placards – like at all galleries and museums. But the objects in the museum are everyday, ordinary: the top of a parking meter, a journal, half a dozen flip phones, a shirt, a bug. But once you read the stories that accompany them, the objects don’t seem commonplace anymore. They are worthy of their place on that shelf, of being cataloged and remembered, saved and protected.
Laurelin is at the very beginning of her tenure at the museum she created. She’s unsure of where she will take it and where it will take her. She is still collecting and imagining, refining the process of how the curation process for her peculiar museum will work and deciding where next she and the museum will go.
WAS THERE AN OBJECT THAT WAS THE CATALYST FOR THE MUSEUM?
I found a creepy old notebook at an antique store in Creed, Colorado. It’s a wooden notebook and inside it says “Leonard Leslie Morris, 1900-1941” and it is a record that a widow kept of every flower she put on her deceased husband’s grave for four years: what type of flower she put on the grave, where on the gravesite she put it, if the old ones were still fresh. And then it mysteriously stops halfway through. Maybe she died, maybe she lost the notebook, maybe she decided it was time to stop, I don’t know.
HOW DID FINDING THAT OBJECT TURN INTO MAKING THIS MUSEUM A REALITY?
It happened around the same time as many other things that also influenced the project, but that just made me think about how a whole story can be in an artifact. At that time I was working at the archives at the Calder Foundation in New York City and I thought, “This is kind of crazy that several people are spending their full-time work lives archiving the work of one – every detail of one man’s work and life.” I realized the process of archiving something, putting something in a museum, can increase its value and meaning. I’ve always been interested in everyday stories and things so I wanted to use that as a mode of storytelling. Instead of writing a novel or a short story or making a radio piece, to me the museum is the medium.
IF YOU WERE TO DESCRIBE THIS PROJECT TO SOMEONE ELSE, HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE IT?
I guess the phrase I use is, “a traveling museum of personal artifacts and their stories,” but I’m working on that. Or “an archaeology of the present.” If you go back to learn something about an old culture you find the most mundane things like their eating utensils and pots or hair combs, and then try to learn about that culture through those mundane objects. So this is trying to learn about the present moment through mundane things.
WHAT IS THE PROCESS OF ACTUALLY CURATING A SHOW LIKE THIS?
I’m still in the process of discovering that process but it started out when I was just saying that anyone can submit anything and I’ll take it as long as it has some story. And then I’ve realized – I’m trying to articulate this better – that it’s a “you know it when you see it” kind of thing. You just can feel that that story locks in with the artifact and the best ones kind of can’t exist one without the other. The artifact needs the story and the story needs the artifact in order to get the whole experience. So I’m looking for objects with stories that are sort of tangential to them or come out of them. Another way to think of it is in fiction or in a play, often an object can be this force in a scene. So I’m inverting that to make the object the focus and then draw things out of that.
HERE, MORE THAN ANY OTHER ART SHOW I’VE SEEN, THE WRITING, THE BLURBS, ARE JUST AS IMPORTANT. HOW DO YOU GO ABOUT MAKING THAT STORY HAPPEN?
Interviewing people. Everything is pretty much directly from what people have said. I don’t even change the language too much, I just edit it down. So I take things away and then sometimes – It’s just putting together what they have directly said…and I just try to write it very objectively. The facts. Focusing on the artifact.
HOW WILL THE ITEMS IN THE SHOW CHANGE AS TIME GOES ON? WHAT WILL HAPPEN TO THEM WHEN THEY’RE DONE WITH THEIR LIFE HERE IN THE MUSEUM?
This is the question I try to avoid! I don’t know! So there are more things. I have more things than can be on display at one time so I’m working toward a system in which each day I set up a new exhibit based on what I feel like showing in that particular place. I really want artifacts from different communities and different regions to be shown all at once so it’s a way of people physically connecting through objects. Once this is done I have no idea. In the fantasy world someone would just maybe buy the whole thing and make it a permanent installation somewhere.
IS THERE A SENSE OF LOSS THAT YOU’VE SEEN FROM THE PEOPLE THAT GIVE YOU THE ARTIFACTS IN YOUR MUSEUM?
Do they feel a sense of loss? I think usually it’s a sense of relief. Everything has to be gifted to the museum. I’m not giving any of these things back to people and that is a known thing so I think there’s this sweet spot where someone has something that they’ve been holding on to for a really long time because they can’t throw it away, but they don’t necessarily want to keep it. So this is a place where they feel that the thing can still be honored but they don’t have to have the burden of caring for it anymore. Examples of that are these love letters that someone had been holding on to for 20 years, found in the rafters of his house, or that crystal, those knives, pretty much everything. So no one has really seemed sad to part with anything.
I OVERHEARD YOU SAY THAT YOU HAVE A DEGREE FROM YALE IN AMERICAN STUDIES. HOW DOES AMERICANA AND YOUR EDUCATION FACTOR IN TO THIS PROJECT?
I became an American studies major because I couldn’t decide exactly what to major in undergrad and I ended up taking a series of American architecture classes, classes about the built environment and about communities, and classes about storytelling and literature. It all meshed into this American studies major. So this is still me turning those interests into one project.
HOW DID YOU END UP WITH THE TRAILER AND THE TRUCK?
This had been an idea for two years before I got to this first stage of physically doing it. I spent a lot of time researching trailers and stuff and then I finally found this trailer outside of Palm Springs, California, in Sky Valley. So I bought it and hauled it across the country with a different truck that belonged to an art gallery in Connecticut, which was where I launched this project first. Then I really needed a truck and I got that truck for $1,000 in Connecticut.
The price and contact number from the sale are still painted on the window. I need to wipe that off. It’s almost caused accidents on the highways because people are waving because they can’t read the numbers and they’re saying “what does that say?” I was living in Los Angeles and that’s where I found and renovated this trailer and then I had to drive it across the country 3,000 miles and I didn’t really know how to back up a trailer yet so I drove straight across. I drove 3,000 miles without ever backing up, without reversing, just forward. I didn’t veer off from the interstate too much. Then it would be scary when I’d be in a town – this still happens sometimes – I’d be about to turn onto a residential street and [a sign] says “No Outlet” or “Dead End.” I can’t turn there because then I’ll have to back up this whole- on this tiny, narrow street.
TELL ME ABOUT WHERE YOU ARE ON THIS TRIP AND WHAT’S AHEAD
Right now I’m sort of finishing the first iteration and then taking a break for a little while to finish documenting everything from the past few months and planning and organizing the next trip. The plan is a westward trip, possibly with my friend Elise who is here in Portland. Next spring and summer we’ll be taking it to Colorado, New Mexico and the southwest area.
WHAT HAVE THE RESPONSES TO THIS MUSEUM IN GENERAL BEEN LIKE?
Good. Everywhere from here in Maine to people in corporate, office-y Hartford, Connecticut and the people in urban New Haven, everyone seems to relate to it in some way or recognize a part of life in here. The responses have been pretty good. Before someone steps in here they don’t quite get and then it seems like it makes sense once they’re in here.
WHAT IS MOST IMPORTANT TO YOU?
Most important to me are people. Specifically, relationships.
WHAT’S A LESSON THAT YOU’VE LEARNED IN YOUR LIFE RECENTLY OR ARE WORKING ON LEARNING?
Not to take people’s advice or not to seek advice. When I graduated from college I went through a phase of just asking everyone for advice about everything. “Where should I live?” “What kind of job should I have?” “How do I do this?” “How do I do that?” and people are so willing to give advice but few people really have good advice that applies to your life. All advice comes from that person’s past experience and where they’re at in their life so it’s just not useful. So I’ve learned yes, ask for advice but only from someone who you respect in a particular way and recognize that it’s coming from a certain perspective.
WHAT’S YOUR GREATEST GIFT OR BLESSING? WHAT’S YOUR GREATEST STRUGGLE?
This is something I’ve been thinking about often. My lack of structure, stability, and money in the past few months doing this project has afforded me flexibility and openness. My greatest struggle is also my greatest abundance, because it’s allowed me to meet people and take the museum to new locations spontaneously. One thing leads to another and all the sudden I’m working with students to do a MMoAA project at the Mariachi Academy of Connecticut, or I’m in Portland, Maine parked in front of a coffee shop talking to you. I’ve relied on strangers for the content of my museum, for places to stay, for the next stop in my journey. Unfortunately this blowin’ in the wind model isn’t sustainable, and ultimately the project will be improved by much advanced planning and a structured route. The trick is to keep this spirit in the next, carefully planned iteration of the project.
IF YOU HAD A MOTTO OR A MANTRA IN YOUR LIFE WHAT WOULD IT BE?
My mantra – which I don’t like, I’m trying to change this – I say “I don’t know” a lot. That’s been my mantra since I was a child. Often I do know but I say I don’t know.
WHAT IS THE BEST MOMENT OF AN AVERAGE DAY?
Mornings. I love the morning. I really like to wake up really early before anyone else and have morning solitude and drink coffee and get that coffee buzz and think, “Everything’s possible!” And nothing has really gone wrong in your day yet.