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Fun exhibit full of fakes, forgeries and food for thought

The Vancouver Sun with Claire Battershill 02 July 2019

A new exhibit of fakes at Vancouver Public Library’s main branch will make think about what is real.

Make Believe: The Secret Library of M. Prud’homme — A Rare Collection of Fakes is a national touring exhibit that lands for a run at the VPL downtown location from July 5 to Aug. 21.

So what can a visitor expect?

For starters: A too-good-to-be-true story.

“It’s a library, a collection of fakes and forgeries,” said Vancouver’s Heather Jessup who co-curated the travelling exhibit with fellow Vancouver-based author Claire Battershill.

The show revolves around a fake story that revolves around a real-life Saskatchewan man named Joseph Prud’homme.

Clear, right?

The fake story Jessup says is that at sometime during “the early modernist 1920s, 1930s Dust Bowl era,” a mysterious crate was dropped on the Bishop Prud’homme’s doorstep. In the crate were all manner of “intriguing objects.”

“It turned out all the objects in the box were fakes or forgeries,” Jessup said over the phone recently. “So when the bishop retired just outside of Montreal he bequeathed these objects to a group called the friends of the library who researched them and found out more of their stories and also added to the collection with more contemporary works, so that’s what’s on display.”

Right, but there is still another twist to this intriguing display.

It seems the old fakes are actually new fakes and are the work of a bunch of contemporary artists who were given writing prompts from Jessup and Battershill.

“We asked writers to think about what strange objects would be hidden in the bishop’s attic and why someone would forge those objects,” said Jessup, a professor of English literature at Langara College who met Battershill while the pair were students at the University of Toronto. “What’s the motivation behind it? And then people wrote amazing, really engaging things.”

Those descriptions were shared with visual artists and objects were created.

Then it became Christmas for the curators.

“It was truly amazing opening these parcels when they came in the mail,” said Jessup, who added they waited until all the packages had arrived before opening any. “We of course had read what were basically short stories, then all of a sudden this object springs to life from a postal box. It was the short story in person. It was very, very cool.”

The idea for the show came out of Jessup’s and Battershill’s shared love of the little museums that catalogue the regular human experience and the pair’s desire to ask questions about revered institutions and what’s within the walls of those institutions.

“Claire and I both love libraries and love museums and have spent a lot of time in them as academics — they are very dear to us, but also they’re problematic institutions that I think need questioning,” said Jessup whose second book This is Not a Hoax: Unsettling Truth in Canadian Culture, will be out this fall. “People need to open their eyes when walking through them and look at not just history but how we read history. Who writes history? Those broader questions. That is important to Claire and I.”

While Jessup agrees that many major museums are beginning to be open to different lenses of view, but they still have some work to do.

“I find often in the large well-funded museums — but they are getting better — they are about men and war. Major historical decisions. But really most people’s lives, which are affected by politics of course, are really daily,” said Jessup. “So it is really great to see the hand-knitted baby blanket or the weird can-opener invention that a farmer made. Those are way cooler to us and tell us more about the people’s history. That’s really more where we lean to.”

The pair found in this project a great deal of sustenance for their own creative appetites as writers of fiction. Both have been nominated for and have won literary awards.

“Another reason why we chose this project is that those bigger questions can be handled in creative ways. Claire writes very contemporary short fiction but studies historical fiction in her academic work. I write historical fiction and study very contemporary literature and art from Canada,” said Jessup. “This was a really lovely way we could combine our interests really broadly. It’s really hard to be an academic and a creative writer. You feel pulled in both directions, so this is really a project I think that has a lot of our love and big questions mixed in with creative work.”

And the big question is what about hoaxes? Why do we fall for them? Was P.T. Barnum right about how suckers are really born every minute?

“We can look at it in that sucker sort of way but we can in look at in some real compassion towards who humanity is which is also hopeful and trusting,” said Jessup, who studied the cultural impact of hoaxes while she was at U of T. “I think that jadedness is healthy so we can be aware and critical but I also don’t think it is always a bad thing when we fall for a good story. Especially when it comes to art.

“There are sort of two things here,” said Jessup. “When we fall for a good story and it’s art I feel like it is good practice for life. It’s a safer space for us to explore our disappointment or our sadness at losing a story we thought was real.

“When it is an institution that damages people’s lives or steals things from people, that is a whole separate matter and I think that this a really important distinction, but when we are talking about stories and art they can be places and moments where we can playfully touch on those questions of trust and distrust and see how they resonate with us and learn quite a bit about ourselves.”

It sounds like we can learn that something good can come out of being duped.

“Hoaxes break our trust, that’s the biggest thing and they do so without our consent. So they are very problematic, but at the same time — this is what I argue in my book that is coming out in the fall — I actually think they can be really good for us,” said Jessup.

“Inevitably we are going to have our trust broken in life. Inevitably the ideas we grew up with around romantic love or a relationship or religious beliefs or whatever it happens to be that is quite major in our lives it is going to be tried at some point. But what I have found in my life is when you have to re-see something — and that’s the thing about hoaxes is once you’ve been hoaxed, you automatically go over your experience again. You’re like: ‘Oh man, why did I fall for that?’”

In the exhibit of two dozen or so items, naming a favourite piece is not an easy task for the curators.

“We have moments,” said Jessup. “‘Oh this one. This one is incredible.’ A bronze stitched needle sculpture or it’s ‘oh my goodness it’s the bird scientist that runs a little bit strange in Newfoundland. This is amazing.’ It’s almost like trying to choose favourite children or something. I don’t know if any of them are leading favourites. We have really come to love all of them.”

The show is for all ages and has a few fun interactive parts that will engage the kids.