The House in the Field
Brendan and Jude Griebel transformed a typical farmhouse into the Museum of Fear and Wonder, a place that gives visitors unusual—and disturbing—insights into human nature.
The blue-and-white bungalow at the end of the winding gravel driveway looks like any of the dozens of farmhouses I passed on the way up from Calgary. A plywood shed stands off to one side and patchy grass gives way to forest beyond the fence. It’s not until I get out of my truck and approach the steps that I notice that some of the posts supporting the porch railing are shaped like bones.
There are other odd touches: a row of black teeth jut over the top of the front door at the back of a deep porch. A giant nose and set of eyes protrude from the wall above. The entrance to the Museum of Fear and Wonder is framed by what I later learn is a hellmouth, a concept that can be traced back to the Middle Ages when the yawning maw of a giant monster was used to depict the gateway to hell.
Brendan and Jude Griebel, brothers and founders of the museum, use the device in the same way it was applied in Italian gardens during the 16th century. This particular hellmouth, on the side of an Alberta farmhouse, serves as a psychological cue that you are about to enter a space where the normal rules no longer apply. Be mindful of what you see and hear. Things are not always what they seem.
The Griebels were raised in Saskatoon and started collecting at a young age. In part they were inspired by the private museums and DIY spaces they
visited while on family road trips to their grandparents’ farm in Castor, Alta. Their parents also fostered an appreciation of art and artifacts. Before retiring to make goat cheese on a farm in central Alberta, Sandy Easterbrook worked as an arts conservator and Bob Griebel was a neurosurgeon who taught at the University of Saskatoon and filled his office with a collection of old medical models.
There may also be a genetic explanation for the brothers’ fascination with unusual handcrafted objects. They are descendants of Philip Griebel, the artisan who created the first ceramic garden gnome in 1890. The original factory in Germany, which includes a museum, is still in the family and still makes the figurines.
Brendan describes how he and Jude began to see objects as a way to explain and understand the different locations they visited. “They were a thing you could isolate from a place,” he says. “You could use that object afterwards to retell a place or retell your experiences in that place.” That understanding has found expression in their careers— Jude is a visual artist, Brendan an archeologist specializing in the Canadian Arctic—but it reaches its apotheosis in the Museum of Fear and Wonder.
The farmhouse has allowed the Griebels to pull together their treasure trove of disquieting things. They shipped items from storage units, Brendan’s house in Montreal and Jude’s home in Brooklyn. It’s the first time all 2,000 or so objects are under one roof. And as of June 1, it’s on display for the public. Admission is free, but visitors have to book an appointment on the website (fearandwonder.ca), at which time they will be given directions to the farm. One of the brothers will guide each group through the collection. As the project builds steam, the Griebels plan to invite writers, artists and academics to live and work
the museum. These lodgers will also lead public tours and discuss how aspects of the collection inform their research or creative work.
Fittingly, the house has also produced some artifacts. When Brendan gives me a tour of the museum, it starts with a cup of coffee in the adjoining kitchen. “This is how they used to ID enemy planes,” Brendan says,sas he sets a deck of playing cards on the table.. The ace of diamonds features diagrams of a Second World War German bomber, the Focke-wulf FW 200 to be exact. The three of clubs is the Macchi C.202, an Italian fighter.
Brendan found the cards behind a wall during one of many renovations that transformed the bungalow into a museum. The house was once part of an internment camp near Edmonton during the Second World War. “They had run out of places to hold prisoners at the front and they were actually boating them over to Canada, putting them on trains out to the prairies,” Brendan says. At 37, he is two years younger than Jude and, in his vintage western shirt with black-pearl buttons, looks right at home on the farm.
The house went on to serve as the office for as an army barracks and, finally, as a residence. Brendan bought it six years ago and moved it to this 27-hectare plot in the farming and ranching community of Bergen, about an hour’s drive north of Calgary. “We like the idea of it being really rural and more difficult to get to,” he says. “The idea of having to travel out to an unknown area and finding all these things along the way—of not quite knowing what you’re getting into.”
That feeling of unease—the not quite knowing—lingers long after you arrive. The brothers have a keen sense for artifacts that pluck deep-seated psychological chords. Whether it’s a melted and disfigured wax head, an anatomical model of an abscessed tooth, a dilapidated antique dollhouse or a wooden prosthetic leg, the objects on display at the Museum of Fear and Wonder strike on a gut level. “You’ll see when we go in there, but nothing is labelled. Nothing is in a certain taxonomy,” Brendan says. “We are interested in how pieces can impact people psychologically or emotionally and with very little context.”
“Do you know about crash-test dummies?” Brendan asks me. “They have this really visceral history.” We have crossed the threshold of the hellmouth and are in the front room, peering at an antique glass case that holds six heads arranged in a neat row. “For a long time they were just using human cadavers as crash-test dummies. It’s estimated that for every human cadaver used—and they are still used sometimes—66 people were saved each year,” Brendan says, adding that dummies started replacing bodies in the 1960s.
The dummy head in the display case has seen some action. The blue plastic is cracked open, revealing layers of materials designed to mimic the behaviour of skin, skull and brain during a collision. On either side of it are wax heads. “That’s Bonnie Parker there from Bonnie and Clyde,” Brendan says, pointing to the one with wavy brown hair. “It’s amazing how the two pieces, or all of these heads, can resonate.” Displaying a crashed, crash-test dummy alongside a series of wax heads is intended to stir the imagination. Both types of objects have been painstakingly constructed to imitate a human head. One is lifelike, the other life-saving.
Wax figures are a relatively recent fascination for the brothers. The Criminals Hall of Fame Wax Museum in Niagara Falls closed in late 2014, and the Griebels acquired several pieces, including the heads of Billy the Kid, Ted Bun-
dy and John Wilkes Booth. They also bought up waxes from a defunct museum in Well Springs, Pennsylvania. Brendan describes how he and Jude are attracted to both the complex history and handmade artistry of wax figures. The heads all have human hair that was inserted with a pin, one strand at a time. The woman’s head at the end of the display case even has human teeth. As the brothers collected these waxes, they also collected documents and other materials to help preserve the legacy of the shuttered museums.
Brendan hands me a single-page guide to the collection. Bergen Fine Print, a letterpress operation nearby, used fonts from former local newspapers to render the one-line description and date of origin for each object in the Museum of Fear and Wonder. We leave the foyer and enter a narrow hallway on our way to the main exhibit space. “So I don’t know how much you know about the history of Ouija boards,” asks my tour guide. I meet Jude at a coffee shop in Inglewood a couple of days after my museum visit. It was early May, and he’d driven in from Medicine Hat that morning and would fly to Chicago the following day. The Esplanade in Medicine Hat is presenting a five-year survey of his artwork, which consists mostly of large sculptures that are simultaneously playful and foreboding. Big ideas, diverse materials and unusual textures combine in what are often ungainly humanoid figures. (The exhibition runs through July 14.)
Jude was on his way to Chicago to help install his contribution to Flux: Responding to
Head and Neck Cancer at the International Museum of Surgical Science. “We’ve been working with head- and neck-cancer survivors and medical professionals to try and revision and visualize the cancer experience,” he says. The exhibition, which originated at dc3 Art Projects in Edmonton in 2017, was created to offer medical professionals new ways of understanding the personal dimensions of cancer.
“The objects we collect remind people of time and a sense of mortality and the unknown,” Jude tells me. He is more soft-spoken than his brother and takes his time thinking through each question and idea. “We’re also really interested in how emotion can be projected onto objects and how those objects affect people’s lives, which is becoming more and more important as we’re living in a society that shops at dollar stores and objects are made to be easily replaced and made to break down and be thrown away.”
Jude and Brendan are part of an informal community of collectors and archivists. They attend an annual conference for niche collectors hosted every spring by the City Reliquary, a small museum that documents the history of New York using mundane and overlooked items. “I met a woman last time who has been collecting toy tractor wheels for over 50 years and pinning them to cards like butterflies, with the identifying model of toy handwritten underneath,” Jude says.
The brothers travel the world to find these singular assemblages of objects. “We’re really interested in these small museums because they often reflect one person’s collection and
ideas,” Jude says. “People surround themselves with objects that speak to their own identity.” Seen in this light, we’re all collectors to some extent. Whether it’s an array of disembodied heads in a display case or ceramic mugs on a kitchen shelf, objects can become personal lodestars. They can connect us to the past and ground us in a particular version of the present. The Griebels seek out instances where the instinct to collect takes on a life of its own.
Jude gives the example of the Human Hair Museum, which is near the Turkish town of Avanos. A potter was using a local cave as a studio when a woman cut off a locket of hair and stuck it to the roof as a gesture of farewell. Other women began doing the same, and the potter labelled the snippets of hair with names and dates. “It’s basically now a giant cavern of hair from all over the world—a cavern of female hair,” says Jude.
He’s also a fan of the Big Valley Creation Science Museum, an hour’s drive north of the Royal Tyrell. “You can go to the Tyrell and learn about the dinosaurs that were once in that area and then you can go to the creationist museum and learn about how dinosaurs were actually kept on the Ark,” says Jude. It’s the decision to use dinosaurs to tell that story, and the care and attention people devoted to making the dinosaur models that he finds appealing. “No matter what somebody’s story is, I’m always interested in seeing it told through arranged material,” Jude says.
The main room at the Museum of Fear and Wonder features a dozen or so display cases of varying size. Brendan has been buying these antiques for years, driving across the prairies with a cattle trailer whenever one pops up for sale. The cabinets once displayed goods at Calgary’s first Hudson’s Bay, a jewelry store in Drumheller, a butcher shop in Diamond City, a pharmacy in Mankoda and others. The dark stained wood, decorative trim and brass handles contrast sharply with the otherworldly materials contained within.
Some of these artifacts are downright horrifying. Light reflects off the smooth metal of a skull-shaped dental mannequin with a slack jaw of narrow teeth. The rubber mask that dental students would unzip up the back and stretch over the top of the head so they could practise on a skin-like material lies in another case across the room, beside a taxidermied coyote and a mummified lizard claw with bright pink nail polish.
Brendan and I spend most of our time hovering over a display case in the centre of the room that holds a chess set carved in 1970 by an inmate on death row at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, the largest maximum security prison in the United States; a papier mache anatomical model of a human arm from 1890; a white plaster death mask made in Holland in 1870; and Anatomical Annie, the world’s most mass-produced CPR dummy.
The first of these is an arresting arti-
fact. The condemned man used whatever materials and tools he had on hand. The darker pieces are dyed with shoe polish and you can see each stroke of the sharp object he used to whittle the pieces. The uniform cut marks suggest a meditative quality to the carving. “I’ve played a few games on this and there is something really kind of eerie about it,” Brendan says. “You’re kind of playing out this guy’s last days carving this thing and all the emotion and thought that he put into it.”
The CPR dummy, on the opposite side of the case, is lifelike from the neck up. “This is an anatomical resuscitation model, but the face is actually cast from a woman called L’Inconnue de la Seine,” Brendan says. The chest consists of various exposed tubes and a rubber air bladder. Brendan explains that L’Inconnue, French for “the unknown,” was a young woman, 16 or 17 years old, who washed up on the shore of the Seine in Paris in the 1880s. The mortician was so taken by her beauty and enigmatic expression that he cast her face in plaster. Her likeness became increasingly popular in bohemian culture; artists would hang moulds of L’Inconnue in their studios. The story spread that she had died by suicide because of a broken heart.
“It became a vision of mystery and tragedy and beauty and loss,” says Brendan. In 1960, a Norwegian toy maker created Anatomical Annie, modelling the face of the first-aid doll on L’Inconnue. An estimated 300 million people have performed mouth-to-mouth on Anatomical Annie, including Michael Jackson, who sings, “Annie, are you okay? Are you okay, Annie?” on “Smooth Criminal.” The words are the same ones people learning to perform CPR are taught to use to determine if someone is unconscious.
“Just the idea of generations trying to resuscitate, literally and figuratively, this tragic heroine that was fished from the river 100 years ago—everyone trying to breathe life back into her through different ways,” says Brendan.
Learning about L’Inconnue changes my perception of the commonplace dummy. I see more nuance and feeling in the way the lips part and how the eyebrows gently arch. Anatomical Annie is not a rare artifact, but at the Museum of Fear and Wonder it’s a reminder that things are not always what they seem, that the world is much more interesting and complex than we realize. And on the other end of the display case is something unique: feet severed just above the ankle serve as pawns on one side of the chessboard; on the other, executioner swords and axes. The macabre artifact immediately conjures the environment in which it was created. Regardless of whether it’s through fear or through wonder, both objects reach beyond the glass and make an indelible mark upon the viewer.
On my way back to Calgary, I pull off the highway at the top of a hill near a small cemetery. The graveyard is shaded from the afternoon sun by tall spruce trees. I sit among the headstones on a bench that commands a panoramic view of the foothills and the Rocky Mountains in the distance. It’s a tranquil place to stop and let the mind, freshly fed on otherworldly sights and ideas, wander. After a while, I head back to my truck; I want to get home before dark.