The Griebel brothers’ Museum of Fear and Wonder is a tribute to the vanishing world of roadside attractions—and the enduring appeal of the uncanny
The Museum of Fear and Wonder pays tribute to the enduring appeal of the uncanny by Eve Thomas
This is how horror stories start. Two brothers buy and renovate an old building in rural Alberta, then Þll it with curious collectibles: A plaster death mask from 1850s Holland. A wooden Ouija board from 1940s Baltimore. Ventriloquist dummies. Vodou dolls. Garden gnomes. And not just any gnomesñthese are family heirlooms, of a sort. It was Jude and Brendan Griebelõs ancestor Philipp Griebel who invented the iconic ceramic lawn ornaments in the 19th century, whimsical symbols of simpler times in Germany (with an admittedly kitschier pedigree this side of the Atlantic).
Òone of themõs got a liquor bottle; the other is playing an accordion and has these disturbingly sharp teeth,ó says Brendan with a grimace.
Òtheyõre painted and put together by hand,ó adds Jude. Òart objects, really, even if theyõre mass produced.ó
This fantastical biographical note is just one of the details that make up the brothersõ journey to their latest venture: the Museum of Fear and Wonder near Bergen, Alberta. The idea crystallized while they were visiting Guanajuato, Mexicoõs Museo de las Momias, but really, theyõve been preparing for this project all their livesñand have the storage lockers to prove it.
Òweõre not hoarders; weõre discerning collectors,ó Brendan says carefully. He is an Arctic archaeologist mainly based in Cambridge Bay who recently moved to Ottawa to work on the exhibition Òinuinnauyugutó at the Canadian Museum of Nature. Jude is an acclaimed Brooklynbased artist whose resin sculpturesñincluding anthropomorphized houses and hybrid bodiesñ explore themes of waste, nature, decay and pollution, and whose most recent exhibitions include Òcrafting Ruinó at dc3 Art Projects in Edmonton and Plastic Ghost, an installation in Jyväskylä, Finland. Previously, they worked together on a project at North Carolinaõs Elsewhere museum, a series called Yellow House that had them photographing objects through a rotting dollhouse.
The brothersõ interest in oddities was almost a given considering their upbringing. Raised by a conservator mother and a neurosurgeon father with a thing for medical antiques, they regularly travelled the world as a family, including a trip in their teens (theyõre now in their 30s) that took them to Europe, Asia and Polynesia. Yet while many of the objects theyõve collected come from far-ßung placesña Namibian divination basket, a Tibetan kapala (skullcap)ñthe museum itself is pure Prairie Gothic. The structure (which Brendan is currently Þlling with antique display cabinets from shuttered butchers, candy shops and the Hudsonõs Bay Company) formerly served as army barracks and, at one point, part of a German internment camp.
Òthe tales and fears of the Prairies come from isolation, harsh winters, how light affects your dayéó muses Jude, citing the drawings of Marcel Dzama and Þlms of Guy Maddin when
he recalls their childhood. He describes traditional crafts tailored to the seasons, games staged in abandoned houses, pranks played in the cornþelds, and the road trips of their youth, days of driving broken up by small-town attractions.
Òanywhere with the Biggest Anything,ó summarizes Brendan. Òplaces that would lure you in.ó
Òtheyõre the last pockets of folk mythology left over from an old world,ó says Jude. Òand sometimes they say more about a place than any formal government archives.ó
According to the Alberta Museums Project, the province is home to more than 300 museums, most of them in rural areas. Add to them roadside attractions, and a local road trip could hit everything from Glendonõs Giant Perogy to St. Paulõs UFO Landing Pad to the Torrington Gopher Hole Museum, where taxidermy rodents are dressed up and posed in bucolic scenes: playing hockey, slow dancing, building snowmen.
In 2017, niche museums are remarkable for their continued existence as much as their actual collections, and this long-faded glory is apparent in the Griebelsõ most recent acquisition: a gang of famous villains from a defunct wax museum in Niagara Falls. Jude and Brendan list off the Þgures they nabbed (Lizzie Borden, Ted Bundy)ñòwe chose them based on notoriety and quality,ó explains Judeñand kick themselves over the ones they missed (Charles Manson, John Wayne Gacy). They speak with the glee of kids swapping baseball cards, and yet, itõs in this discussion that they out themselves as anything but exploitative showmen or ironic gore hounds. Despite the quirky, even gruesome, subject matter theyõve taken on, they are tactful, even sensitive, when it comes to this project.
Òthe guy who sold them to us knew how much they meant to kids, growing up. He didnõt want to just get rid of them all on ebay,ó says Jude, before pointing out that most of the wax Þgures were made in the 1960s, by real craftspeople, before Niagara achieved full tourist-trap status. He explains how the art form arose from the need for medical models during the Enlightenment, when real cadavers got too expensive, weaving in the tale of Louis Auzoux, a medical doctor who revolutionized the Þeld again with papier mâchéñantecedents of the classic Òdissectibleó anatomical models still popular today. Auzoux learned his craft from makers of childrenõs dolls in 19th-century Paris. Òyou see the same technique used with two radically different emotional understandings of the human body,ó says Jude. (Unsurprisingly, the Museum of Fear and Wonder showcases many baby dolls and childrenõs toys worthy of Mexicoõs infamous Isla de las Muñecas, or Island of the Dolls.)
When it comes to the wax Þgures theyõve bought, the brothers are adamant about one thing: Òthe point is not to make a novelty museum,ó says Jude. And so the villains wonõt be displayed in blood-spattered dioramas, but instead have been stripped of their costumes, down to their carved limbs and stuffed torsos. In short, says Jude, Òweõve removed the dramatics.ó
Theyõre also not planning on any bold, P. T. Barnumðstyle ad campaigns or ßashing arrows to coax Calgarians to undertake the 90-minute drive to the museum. In fact, most of the brothersõ sales tactics would make the humbug-happy showman roll in his grave. They only plan to open for three months in the summer (with an artist- or writer-in-residence acting as a didact), wonõt be charging admission and have no plans for a gift shop. And while the museum does have a website and Instagram account, they only offer a few pictures of select objects shot against plain backgroundsñ an Inuit shaman belt, two mating ßies trapped in amberñand glimpses of the space itself. ÒWE donõt want that many people to come,ó Jude admits, with a laugh. Itõs not that theyõre being difþcult, but that theyõve discovered something important after years of going off the beaten path to museums in peopleõs homes and private spaces, from a human hair collection in Turkey to an erotica museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, that was also a working VD clinic: the journey itself is part of the experience.
Òtime is the biggest investment you can make now, and moving through that physical space,ó says Brendan. ÒIF people are interested enough to come and see it, if itõs remote, thatõs already part of it.ó
Jude cites the Museum of Jurassic Technology as an inßuence in its approach to marketing as much as content, in that most of its popularity has been organic, and its converted Culver City storefrontñshowcasing microminiatures and portraits of Soviet space dogsñis available to both those whoõve made the pilgrimage and curious passersby. ÒIT was intended for random strangers to step into,ó he says.
Jude also recently met about 40 kindred spirits at a niche collectorsõ conference in New York, attendees with the sorts of interests that make medical dummies look mainstream: a woman who gathers and mounts the miniscule tires from toy tractors; a couple thatõs built a tribute to Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan in their Brooklyn apartment; and Marion Duckworth, a septuagenarian whose collections live alongside herñplaybills, skeleton keys, Snow White Þgurinesñin a 1600s Dutch farmhouse, the oldest inhabited home in the city, complete with a graveyard. When asked where his interests lie on a spectrum of strangeness, instead of answering, he challenges the question: ÒI donõt like the word strange, itõs boring. Or the word creepy. I prefer to call the objects we collect emotionally complicated. Or uncomfortable. There are better words than strange to explain the grey area.ó
It would be too easy to paint the Brothers Griebel as moustache-twirling eccentrics, but again, where there could be a gotcha thereõs simply appreciation. And despite what could be called a resurgence of socially (or social-media) acceptable interest in the occultñthe Twin Peaks revival, cyberpaganism, podcasts like My Favorite Murder, the #trypophobia tag, Òcreepypastaó online urban legendsñtheyõre not set on riding that wave.
Òwhateverõs happening with this resurgence of the supernatural, this Internet gothic, we donõt want any part of that,ó states Jude. Itõs not that he is totally averse to horror as a genre (he admits to a fondness for visceral, pre-cgi special effects in movies like C.H.U.D. and The Dark Crystal), itõs that they are presenting objects in what he calls a Òpost-material world.ó And that is, he says, the biggest difference between his personal work and this project: the former is about creation, the latter about consideration. Òweõre trying to highlight objects in the right way. Itõs only when theyõre looked at as gimmicky that youõre dismissing peopleõs beliefs. Itõs about respecting them and giving them the right space.ó Itõs this approach that has Brendan and Jude convinced they can transform visitorsõ fear into careful reßection. Or even, if they get it right, awe. ■