#24: Original window from the Zimmerman home.
#26: Tiles from the Zimmerman’s [sic] bathroom.
#28: Door hardware from the Zimmerman home.
These lines sound as though they could have been copied from an evidence checklist at a crime scene. Or from an auctioneer’s program. Actually, they are copied from the Hibbing Public Library’s “Bob Dylan Exhibit and Timeline,” and because these itemized things were neither grim nor for sale, they were also, to my mind, without interest.
Housed in the basement of the library at 2020 East Fifth Avenue, Hibbing, Minnesota, the location alone of the Bob Dylan Collection was enough to suggest how much the town seemed to be trying to bury his memory. It was a strange, faintly pathetic collection of artifacts, including, for each explicable thing – his birth certificate (under the name Robert Allen Zimmerman), or his signature in a classmate’s high school yearbook – some other inexplicable thing destined to remain beside the point: a tile from the bathroom floor of his childhood home.
It is possible I gave – or am still giving – the Collection’s curators too little credit. For the sake of comparison, I am inclined to think of the curiosity cabinets on display at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, or at the British Museum in London. I took a picture of the placard at the entrance to the British Museum’s Enlightenment exhibit, just beyond the bust of Royal Physician and avid collector of antiquities, Dr. Richard Mead. The placard introduced the Enlightenment (1680-1820) as the age of reason and discovery, characterized by an intense concern with stockpiling data:
Enlightened men and women believed that the key to unlocking the past and the mysteries of the universe lay in directly observing and studying the natural and the man-made world. Their passion for collecting objects, from fossils and flints to Greek vases and ancient scripts, was matched by their desire to impose order on them, to catalogue and to classify.
Perhaps the curators of the Bob Dylan Collection were possessed by a similar enthusiasm for “directly observing” and “collecting objects.” Or perhaps they took too literally the idea of “unlocking the past” by including the Zimmermans’ door hardware.
History has been unkind to antiquarianism – the practice more or less responsible for the creation of the curiosity cabinet – and careful to distinguish it from the more respected fields of archaeology and medicine. In the seventeenth century, antiquaries gained a reputation for being unfashionable; they were criticized for their academic marginality, lack of imagination, and bizarre affinity for rarities. At a time when Francis Bacon’s observation- and experiment-based approach, known as the New Science, was entering into medical discourse, the activities of the antiquary – collecting and trading relics of the past with an almost singular taste for the obscure or arcane detail – naturally posed an obstacle to the integrity of empirical methods in “legitimate” disciplines. In short, the scientific, medical approach could not afford to be mistaken for the mock-professional fascination with minutiae.
Situated at the far end of a conference table in the room dedicated to the Bob Dylan Collection stood a life-size, papier mâché effigy of the rock star circa 1965 – though the bolo tie was, incongruously, more of a Dylan-in-the-aughts feature. The papier mâché Dylan wore a suit that looked to have been – over the original shade of brown, reminiscent of military dress uniform – painted black as an afterthought. Its hair was appropriately unkempt, but not especially curly, and unaccountably reddish-maroon in tint. Considerable attention seemed to have been paid to the nose but in vain; thin-bridged and knobby, it fell well short of capturing Dylan’s iconic hook.
The papier mâché Dylan was the work of Hibbing artist Ann Schnortz. Aside from her carelessness when it came to representing the fabric of the dummy’s jacket sleeves – which instead took on the aspect of mummified skin, especially in the original shade of brown, stretched taught over the “bones” of its arms – Schnortz’s principal miscarriage stemmed from her apparent failure ever to have witnessed a guitar being played. To be fair, the guitar itself was probably the most faithfully rendered object in the entire construction; but the papier mâché Dylan handled it – with bloated ham-hands – as though it were a cello.
The papier mâché Dylan had its counterpart in the fake merman of the British Museum. Despite the shelves of shrunken heads I had seen on exhibit at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford – or perhaps in spite of them; I found it worrisomely easy to overcome the fact of their morbidity – my memory of the British Museum’s fake merman is particularly vivid. A hideous specimen with tight, grayish-greenish skin and spread fingers that seemed to rake its own face, the fake merman, read the caption, would have made “a great prize for any 17th– or 18th-century cabinet of curiosities.” Though it was alleged to have been caught in Japan sometime in the eighteenth century, this merman consisted of “the dried top half of a monkey attached to a fish tail.” It seemed to me the special prerogative of captions to indulge understatement: to substitute “dried” for any taxidermically precise term, “top half” for any anatomical particular, and “attached” for a process that I imagine must have involved a great deal more gum and stitching than the process by which we are accustomed to “attaching” documents to emails.
On the whole though, the restrained, scholastic atmosphere of the British Museum was, for me, what made its unsightly little token of seventeenth-century charlatanism so absurd. By contrast, Pitt Rivers was so coarse and evidently disorganized – an environment in which Jeremy Bentham’s mummified head could readily go unnoticed – that strangeness seemed to be the basis of its design.
Strictly speaking, this design is what Pitt Rivers is famous for: its “typological displays,” in which – contrary to the usual manner of exhibition for ethnographic or archaeological museums, by geographic or cultural areas – artifacts are lumped together by type, or category. For instance, weapons in one area, animal skins in another. In most cases, the artifacts were accompanied only by whatever note the original owner had handwritten and, in one case, tied with white string to the leg of a pickled-frog-cum-pin-cushion. Which is to say, Pitt Rivers offered little in the way of expository captions; its ‘displays,’ the website admits, “are essentially visual storage.”
As I recall, the tile from the floor of the Zimmermans’ bathroom was propped at about an 80-degree angle against the baseboard of the near wall. In the sense that the Bob Dylan Collection should also have had the wherewithal to put the word displays in scare quotes, there is, to my mind, some unconscious affinity between its organizing principle and that of Pitt Rivers. Except that it is lacking in historical eccentricity, the basement collection of Dylan artifacts could be said to achieve all but the grotesque novelty of the seventeenth century’s curiosity cabinets in its arbitrary philosophy of cataloguing relics.
But then, there is something to be said for curiosity as a notional virtue. The issues that bred hostility against antiquaries in the seventeenth century were matters of reputation and of interpreting data. Historically, the hostility marked a campaign against charlatans and amateurs. I suppose the question is whether the same pardon can be extended to Ann Schnortz and the curators who approved her submission of the papier mâché Dylan; in technique and erudition it is very poor, but in eclectic intrigue…. Well, time will tell.
The inclination to collect and to uncover significance is a natural – and for me, compulsive – one. It exists in the literal sense of purchasing souvenirs, or holding onto mementos. It also exists in the more figurative sense of keeping a journal, or accumulating receipts for reasons that have nothing to do with monitoring spending – both of which I do a little obsessively, though not in isolation of collecting dead or shiny things. On the windowsill in my bedroom, for instance, I have a little improvised assembly of found-artifacts including: the shell of a box turtle, half-a-dozen porcelain insulators (probably as many wine bottle corks – not found), the wings of a viceroy butterfly, a miniature tea spoon, bits of sea glass, a leopard cowry shell, and a brass wax seal stamp that I dug up in the dirt as a kid.
Why else, if not to “uncover” significance, had I driven to Hibbing three days after my sixteenth birthday (on my learner’s permit, with my mom)? I had recently learned that Bob Dylan’s hometown was located only about 70 miles southwest of where we always vacationed for the summer in Ely, Minnesota. It was no less of a revelation to discover that, on our way to Ely, we had always passed through the city of Duluth (where Dylan was born in 1941 and where, as a teenager, he would perform under the alias “Dylan,” in part, it is rumored, because of the city’s anti-Semitic history). And we always continued up the coast of Lake Superior on none other than Highway 61. In short, becoming conscious of the coincidence brought significance into view.
For most people, of course, Hibbing is less important for being Bob Dylan’s hometown than for being positioned on the Mesabi Iron Range. Established in 1893 by the German miner, Frank Hibbing, the little town was transplanted two miles to the south in the 1920s when iron ore was discovered beneath its original site. For that reason, it is sometimes called, “The Town That Moved,” or, in reference to its sizable open pit iron ore mine, “The Grand Canyon of the North.” Today, the Hibbing website has adopted the slogan: WE’RE ORE AND MORE.
True, Hibbing is a little more than ore. It is also home to the Greyhound Bus Museum. And the Bob Dylan Collection has its non-subterranean equivalents in Zimmy’s, the diner on the main drag, and in Dylan’s childhood home, only a few blocks out.
The home is still a private residence. It is a two-story, blue, stuccoed house in the Mediterranean style with a garage door painted to resemble the cover of Blood on the Tracks.
Zimmy’s, where my mom ordered a Reuben “Hurricane” Carter sandwich for lunch, was plastered with all manner of Dylan memorabilia: posters, album covers, framed photographs, electric guitars, an old black-and-white route sign for Highway 61, and so on. A woman I met later that afternoon actually likened it to “a shrine.” (From an art historical perspective, the aesthetic preference for clutter would be termed a “dense hang” – popular in the Rococo, and not, I should add, without its connections to curiosity cabinets.)
Maybe if Dylan were dead Hibbing’s eclectic tributes would have seemed more called for: worthwhile simply by virtue of the tendency for death to cast a long, important shadow over the most unimportant of details. As it happened, I went to see Dylan in concert the November after my July trip to Hibbing. He performed in a field house. His singing, of course, has always been “bad,” but the exposed ceiling girders did nothing in the way of improving his acoustics. He wore a dark suit with gold piping and a tawny, wide-brimmed hat; together, they camouflaged all the distinctive aspects of his person: his long, thin legs, his curly hair, his hooked nose. He played only the keyboard, shifting his weight un-rhythmically from one leg to the other while he sang.
I cried quietly in the car on the way home. For me, Dylan might as well have died that night. I used to worry about how I would learn of his death; probably I would be putting away dishes from the dishwasher and my mom would have left the radio in the kitchen on and some pitiless news anchor would announce his passing after a long struggle with emphysema. Basically, my fear had been of doing something exceedingly mundane at the same moment that Dylan was crossing the hallowed threshold between life and death. It was that kind of foolish idolatry – my serious and exaggerated faith in Dylan’s sanctity – that made Hibbing’s tastelessness so agonizing for me to witness.
Constructing the analogy now, though, between Hibbing’s Bob Dylan Collection and Pitt Rivers’ curiosity cabinets, or the British Museum’s Enlightenment exhibit, does not strike me as being irreverent or ironic in design. Or at least, my intentions are not only irreverent and ironic. By relaxing my standards of the soberness with which all-things-Dylan should be regarded enough to draw the parallel between the fake merman and the papier mâché Dylan, I can restore some sense of levity to the otherwise pathetic and humorless Bob Dylan Collection. I can forgive the insult I felt Hibbing had delivered me the summer of my sixteenth birthday.
What the Collection lacked in historical eccentricity I have tried to make up for by connecting it, eccentrically, to the grotesque novelty of curiosity cabinets: acquitting and even halfway admiring Ann Schnortz along with her antiquarian antecedents.