“What would a museum look like if it was dedicated to ordinary objects of no monetary value, but immense everyday life consequences?”
That’s the question Clare Dolan seeks to answer at the Museum of Everyday Life in Glover, Vt. Dolan, who founded the museum in 2011, has no interest in celebrating the precious, the rare, the famous. She’d rather honor the stuff of junk drawers — toothpaste tubes, safety pins, old to-do lists — and present them with reverence.
So, she set out to create a museum that would redefine what is valuable, and whose lives are worth putting on display.
“We need a museum that’s about us, too — the ordinary people,” said Dolan, 54, who has dubbed herself the Chief Operating Philosopher of the museum. “We’re here, and there’s something lovely about our lives.”
In a remote corner of the bucolic Northeast Kingdom, The Museum of Everyday Life beckons from the side of the road. There is no admission fee or lock on the door; patrons let themselves in and turn the lights off when they’re done. Dolan, who lives in a house next door, works as an ICU nurse at Northeastern Vermont Regional Hospital in nearby St. Johnsbury, so she’s often not home to greet visitors. The only security is a feisty chicken named George.
The museum grew out of her childhood love of the material world. “I was the kind of kid that would talk to chairs,” said Dolan, who’s originally from the Chicago area. After she bought her Vermont home in 2004, “I found the means to start making the thing that I wish I could come across.”
The museum, now in its 10th year, champions the small to illuminate the universal. The front of the museum boasts the “greatest hits” of exhibits past, like a trove of tone balls — dust that accumulates inside of instruments — and a violin made of matchsticks. Matchboxes from around the world rest on a wooden table, some from Dolan’s travels, others from outside contributions.
Each of the exhibits, which run from one summer to the next, are communally curated. Dolan puts out a call for submissions in February when she announces that year’s object of focus. Throughout the 1990s, she worked as a puppeteer at the nearby Bread and Puppet Theater, a political troupe that has tackled a litany of social justice issues throughout its decades-long history — but she also enlists her “philosophers at large,” or board of advisers, to assist her in creating each exhibit.
This year’s exhibit highlighting notes and lists received the most submissions of any in the museum’s history, Dolan said. The selection is organized by category: love notes, bucket lists, and unfinished lists, like one that reads, ”Things that have never happened: 1. I’ve never been asked to dance.” There is a number two, but it is left blank.
“My heart just broke for that person,” said Corina Orias, a California elementary school teacher visiting the museum with a local friend on a recent rainy Sunday. “I just hope that she did get asked to dance, sometime, someplace.”
Why lists and notes? Dolan loves their inherent intimacy: the content, but also the way they bear the signs of human use; a pencil smudge here, a crinkle in the paper there. “They’re so connected to a person and a person’s story,” she said. “They’re snapshots into how we make our way through the world.”
Take, for example, Charlie Page’s to-do lists. He and his teenage granddaughter, El, make lists of chores to complete around Page’s houses in Randolph and Westmore, Vt., from vacuuming his woodworking shop to picking apples. Two of these lists, which he picked out of his trash can, are on display.
“My last list for El was covered with coffee grounds,” he said, but Dolan wanted it anyway.
Walking through the museum can feel intimate to the point of intrusive. The items on display are windows into real lives, in all of their banal glory. That’s the point. “What is life made up of? It’s all of these little moments and all of these little things that we use to get through our days,” said Dolan.
COVID-19 briefly forced the closure of the museum, which now continues to highlight the ordinary at a time that is anything but. On a recent fall day, some visitors left the Museum of Everyday Life with a renewed sense of contemplation.
“It makes me go home and think more about the stuff I have, which generally is clutter and a headache and I want to get rid of,” said Nina Church, who was visiting the museum with an old friend.
“It’s not about the stuff, it’s about the lives behind the stuff, and the human footprint,” said Harley Spiller, a museum educator, from his studio in Queens, N.Y. Spiller contributed to the notes and lists exhibit.
As it closes out its first decade, Dolan’s scrappy barn venture has evolved into a museum in its own right — with its own everyday issues to consider. The roof needs fixing, and Dolan said someone is pilfering from the donation box, the proceeds from which typically cover the cost of the following year’s exhibit.
“It’s a lot of work, and it’s sort of thankless work in a way,” Dolan said, “but it brings a lot of joy to me.”
Dolan dreams of building a mobile exhibit on her cargo trike, and yet the museum is “rooted here,” she said. “It’s hard to imagine it anywhere else.” In the meantime, she isn’t convinced that a trek out to Vermont is necessary to start “embarking on our mission of glorious obscurity,” as the sign atop the barn declares.
“Objects are just these physical things that anchor things that we carry with us inside — our memories, our dreams, our experiences. That’s why I feel like I can talk about the museum living inside of us,” she said. “One of the reasons that people like the museum is because they see a little bit of themselves in it.”
Dana Gerber can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org