Museum: from “seat of the Muses”

A chance encounter with a small-town museum volunteer last summer led me to an unexpected new writing project.

Like most small Manitoba museums, the Dairy Museum of Manitoba is only open in the summer months and is a labour of love for local volunteers. In addition to objects that tell the story of the dairy industry in and around St. Claude, Manitoba, it displays a variety of artifacts from local life in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

When my wife and I stopped there one afternoon last August, the volunteer who showed us around told us the stories behind a number of objects, one of which especially stuck in my mind. It was a bugle that had been carried during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 and then brought to St. Claude after immigrants from eastern France founded the town. I was so captivated by the story behind the bugle that I wrote a very short story about it, my first foray into what’s known as “flash fiction.”

Before long I was seized by the idea of writing similarly short stories inspired by other artifacts at other museums. Looking through the gallery on my phone, I saw photos of old mining tools, flamboyant suits worn on stage by country singers, children’s shoes left as offerings at a pilgrimage site. Then, in the fall, when Rosemary and I travelled to Germany and the Czech Republic, I found myself pondering objects that we’d seen in well over a dozen museums and historic sites, from a Renaissance statue disfigured by fire in the last months of the Second World War to a beautiful, elegant dress once worn by Eva Braun.

The word museum comes to English from the Greek, via the Latin, for “seat of the Muses.” Those divine beings who inspire poetry, music, history and more whisper to us when we let a museum take us to some place new.

So in one of my newest projects, I’m listening to the Muses and letting them take my writing on a short journeys. Maybe it will lead to publication in some of the many literary magazines that feature flash fiction. Who knows? Maybe if I write enough of them I could collect them in a book. If nothing else, maybe I can justify writing off some museum admission fees on my taxes.