Exhibition Review: The Museum of Online Museums

The Museum of Online Museums is a website that that contains an archive of links to other online museums, collections and exhibits on the web that cover an extremely broad range of subjects and interests. The site is divided into three sections and is described on their Mission page as:

The Museum Campus contains links to brick-and-mortar museums with an interesting online presence. Most of these sites will have multiple exhibits from their collections (or, in the case of the Smithsonian, displays of items not on display in the Washington museum itself).

The Permanent Collection displays links to exhibits of particular interest to design and advertising.

Galleries, Exhibition, and Shows is an eclectic and ever-changing list of interesting links to collections and galleries, most of them hosted on personal web pages. In other words, it’s where all the good stuff is.

While the first two sections do contains links to some extremely valuable resources offered by noteworthy organizations, the third section is indeed where the good stuff is. The titles of some of the galleries are often intriguing enough, despite being simply a description of the objects themselves. For example:

–       Museum of Questionable Medical Devices

–       International Hotel Door Hanger Collection

–       Gallery of Vintage UFO photography

–       The Art of the Shiv

–       International Toothpaste Museum

–       Bad Paintings of Barack Obama

–       Gallery of German Television Test Patterns

–       The Fried Chicken Pantheon

–       Gallery of Japanese Matchbox Labels

–       International Collection of Vintage Soap Labels

–       Gallery of Vintage Poison Labels

–       Gallery of Cambodian Pulp Novels

–       Awesome Cassette Tapes From Africa

–       Archive of American Gothic Parodies

Each of these sites feature vastly different presentations ranging from a gallery on Flickr, to an outdated website from the 90’s. The presentation itself is often a reflection of the collection’s creator. Indeed, what is on display in each of the collections is the person that created them as well as the items that populate them. The fact that someone decided to make a website entitled The Fried Chicken Pantheon can be indicative of many things far beyond that of an interest in fried chicken.

In this section, we have a kind of modern wunderkammer of cultural artifacts: a collection of oddities that have, through the process of curation, been transmuted from mere things into objects. This, naturally, leads to the question of what distinguishes things from objects. For Bill Brown, “The story of objects asserting themselves as things, then, is the story of a changed relation to the human subject and thus the story of how the thing really names less an object than a particular subject-object relation” (4). Much like Einstein’s theory that space and time do not exist apart from each other, but are in fact combined in a single continuum, Brown is suggesting that relationship between subject and object (and by extensions, things, as these are what objects arise out of) are all part of the same continuum, with our relationships to the objects being the qualities that defines an objects status. It is only the fact that someone has taken the trouble to collect and collate various labels from soaps over the years and organize into a series of digital images that these things become objects. Brown notes that “Things lie beyond the grid of intelligibilty the way mere things lie outside the grid of museal exhibition, outside the order of objects” (5). Through the curation and exhibition of these collections, these things are brought into the “grid of museal exhibition” so to speak. The fact that the ‘actual’ or ‘real’ items are not present in the exhibitions further illustrates that the relationships between the objects, things and subject are the defining qualities. As Brown notes, “The real, of course, is no more phenomenal in physics than it is in psychoanalysis – or as in psychoanalysis, it is phenomenal only in its effects… even objects squarely within the field of phenomenality are often less clear (that is, less opaque) the closer you look.” (6)

Also part of this section is a three-part film, entitled The Curators, that explores three of the featured galleries’ and interviews its creators. The first two parts of The Curators are a good example of two highly contrasting types of exhibitions that can be found on this site.

The Curators Part One

The Curators Part Two

The first part is about Bill Keaggy’s Grocery List Collection, which is about an ever expanding, highly-revealing, and often amusing collection of grocery lists sent to him. What’s interesting about this is that the value of this exhibition is not in the individual items, but the mere fact that they exist. The connections that these items have to their original creators and what it reveals about them is what defines the exhibition. As shown in the film, Keaggy stores most of these notes carelessly in a duffel bag, and remarks about the advantages of not having put effort into taking care of the individual items. With a more traditional exhibit, it would have been sacrilege to have treated its contents with such disregard, but with this one it is the exact opposite. Spending any significant amount of effort in the preservation of a collection of what must in large part be made up of mundane and banal grocery lists could certainly even be considered an indicator of some kind of psychosis. However, when it is photographed and presented online as a collection, it is deemed an exhibit, and even worthy of being made into a book.

This quality of transmutation is also present in the exhibit that is the subject of part two of The Curators, Very Small Things. The cataloguing and collecting of mundane, tiny little objects, replete with it’s on codex, also demonstrates this mechanism whereby things can be turned into objects. However, what is different is that in the Grocery List Collection there was a complete disregard for the physical items and emphasis on what the item revealed about the creator, whereas in Very Small Things, there is a fetishization of the object as shown by the careful collection of the items with tweezers and specimen tubes. At the same time, this highlights other issues, such as the effects that a consumer based society on the generation of physical clutter. One starts to contemplate the amount of obsolete items that we are surrounded with and where they came from and where they will all end up. In many ways what is said about these Very Small Things can also be said about the Museum of Online Museums as a whole. Each of the exhibitions represent cultural artifacts that would have been otherwise disregarded and forgotten about, destined to inhabit the corners of our culture like pocket lint or dirt under fingernails.


Bill Brown, “Thing TheoryCritical Inquiry 28:1 (August 2001)

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