To a lost museum

June 16, 2012 § Leave a comment

Two museums presided over my childhood. One of them – the Art Institute of Chicago – is world-renowned and still very much in existence, a solid reassuring presence holding court between Michigan Avenue and the lake. Although it’s changed considerably since my first visit, I can still nod to the lions as I climb the steps, lose myself in the galleries, pass hours in the print room looking through solander boxes (granted, not something I ever did as a child) or in the basement exploring the Thorne Rooms (a childhood enthusiasm I’m not ashamed to say I haven’t outgrown).

The other existed for less than four years – a blink of the eye – and I suspect I’m one of only a few people who remember it at all. No physical trace of it remains, and because it vanished several years before Tim Berners-Lee came along with the luminous idea that is now letting me share this, it doesn’t seem to have left much of an imprint on the super-archive that is the Internet – only a memory that manages to be both vivid and hopelessly blurred, as 20-plus-year-old memories tend to be.

The second, lost museum wasn’t in Chicago but in Evanston. It was called the Byer Museum of the Arts, which was something of a misnomer. Art museum-cum-Wunderkammer would have been more accurate but would also have made for an awkward name, so I suppose I can see why the founders kept it brief. Said founders (I have since found out, as my four/five-year-old self wasn’t bothered about such things) were a local art-collecting couple who, in 1981, took over a building that had once belonged to Northwestern University and converted it into a museum to house their collection, which ran from (then-)contemporary art to manuscripts to natural history.

Because of the building’s original function (a university club) it felt more like stepping into a private home than into a museum. In my memories, the entrance was dark and cool, with an old woman (perhaps not – all adults seem ancient when you are a child) managing the admissions desk. On either side of a staircase leading up behind the desk were aquaria, backlit and filled with tropical fish. I could very easily have spent a happy afternoon just staring at the fish, but my mother would always gently nudge me upstairs where other treasures awaited – libraries lined with vitrines filled with a myriad of minerals, insects and butterflies. The latter seemed to have been selected for their beauty as much as, or perhaps more than, for their scientific value – nothing nasty or frightening, no hideous creatures floating in jars of formaldehyde. No, just case after case of glistening scarabs, iridescent Morphos and monarchs and swallowtails with wings like stained glass. There must have been others, but those are the ones that inhabit my memories.

Strangely, given what my life’s work is, my memory of the Byer Museum’s art is fuzzy at best, a collection of adjectives and vague impressions. I remember finding it colourful, big, strange and a little intimidating, although I’m not sure what the nature of the intimidation was. Several years ago, while I was going through my belongings in preparation for moving to Los Angeles, my mother and I unearthed a brochure from the museum with several photos of paintings and sculptures in the collection and I was surprised and a little disappointed at their generally poor quality. Back in college, I remember flipping through a friend’s Intro to Modern Art textbook and feeling a sense of startling familiarity when I happened upon a photo of Marisol’s The Party, so maybe a version thereof, or another work by her, figured in the collection. I’ll never know.

Shortly after New Year’s Day in 1985, Mom sat me down and I somehow knew, with a child’s intuition, that she had bad news. The Byer Museum had burned down on New Year’s Eve. The building was gutted and the collection completely destroyed. It was impossible to get my head round. How could that place full of beautiful things where I’d spent so many happy hours have simply disappeared?

The cause of the fire was never determined – arson or accident? In any case, there was no reason to rebuild the museum, since its raison d’être was gone and could never be restored. The building was razed a few years later and apartments built on the site. Apart from a few newspaper articles and that brochure we found in my closet, as far as I’m aware, no physical trace of the museum remains.

I’ve written this partly to leave one more trace. I don’t know if this lost museum had quite the same meaning to anyone else, but if it did – and if you happen to stumble across this – then my work will have been done and it will have been restored somewhat, if only in memory, to life.

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