Object Stories

Snow White: Source

Flayed donkey skin, talking mirrors, amputated fingers, dead wolves heads, magic beans, and spinning wheels….

Entering the Museum of Fairy Tales in Bergen one is confronted with a vast array of exhibits from across the torrid world of fairy tales; from the breadcrumbs of Hansel and Gretel to locks of Rapunzel's hair and a large glass stand containing the eponymous cloak of one Little Red Riding Hood. Cinderella's glass slipper is however noticeably missing, having cracked several days previously, and now awaits repair by Benjamin Mikaels, the owner, chief curator, and my guide through this manifestation of physical storytelling.

Despite some minor taunting Benjamin refuses to confirm that the exhibits are indeed someone’s creations, but promises that at least one is indeed the genuine article. I could find no visible glint in the eye when he made this statement but I am convinced it is the poisoned red apple — it does indeed look convincingly like menace in waiting.

Red Riding Hood: Source

Throughout the maze-like structure of the building are less wandered rooms that spotlight lesser known fairy tales. The kind of tales that Disney censors would swiftly ignore and the kind that are quickly skipped through by fearful parents in an accidental reading of any weightly volume enspined with the word ‘Grimm’. Many relate to less well known fairy tales from central European countries than have never seen the light of day until recently — muddled variations on more popular tales but mutated and twisted to extraordinary degrees, many missing the essential elements we are so familiar with and stopping abruptly for no reason, the objects relating to them similarly unfamiliar. Odd dry fruits, pieces of clothing, and jars of pungent spices litter the corridors on stands.

There are also rooms filled with objects, both everyday and strange, that apparently hold a story either in waiting or lost forever, or perhaps signaling nothing but to scholars and historians — still in their boxes and ready for display or to be taken to storage until their stories are finally found or rise from obscurity. Objects lying in wait for stories that will fill them.

Puss in Boots: Source

It is intriquing to speculate on whether the Grimms and others added or removed objects from stories at the behest of traders for fear of sullying their sales. Indeed perhaps they were not authors of fairy tales at all but merely editors of the first shopping catalog, the earliest example of product placement hidden amid stories we tell children. The same could be said of the lasting influence of the stories themselves — just how many girls came to grow their hair excessively long, or to lean down to kiss a captured frog, but later die from kissing the poisonous skin of a toad.

Donkeyskin: Source

There is something primal about the lack of text in the museum — it seems fitting to the oral origins of the tales, and solidifies the permanence of story, untethered by a connection with the written word. In fact it could be argued that the written word is what ensnared and trapped them, like drugged animals set in a leather bound zoological park for eternity.

Contrasting the familiar story objects with the blank objects harder to pin a tale to, one feels a sense of confusion rising. A loss of story and identity manifests in physical form left alone with an unrelatable object for too long. And yet new stories form slowly the more one stares. This is common my guide assures me— and he leads me to the hidden backroom building where more potent experiments in story objects occur, free of the trammels of fairy tales.

Cinderella: Source

Here new stories are created solely through the arrangement of objects on special tables. Readers move among the ‘story tables’ deep in concentration. Elsewhere more elaborate stories stretch through whole corridors or layers of custom built shelving. However it is explained to me that with this often permanent relationship between object and meaning established it becomes harder for storytellers to tell new stories without finding new objects with which to associate with them. Obscure cultural artifacts become much sought after and existing objects are transformed and adapted. When even more desperate measures are required sculptors are employed to create new unique objects in growing levels of narrative sophistication. Poetry objects. Horror objects. Fruit becomes the reserve of mainstream fiction while vegetables tend to be reserved for genre fiction. Small metallic objects are used for futurist tales and mysteries.

Hansel and Gretel: Source

There are also attempts to reconstruct the meaning of overly familiar objects, like the crucifix, so they can be reused to tell other tales, and to solve the growing problem of objects of national importance left stranded in foreign countries— for example fruits that cannot be grown anymore except in foreign climes. A form of object trade war can result requiring narrative diplomacy.

It is late evening as I leave the Museum, clutching a bag of shop bought souvenirs. Miniature objects representing some of my favorite objects from the exhibition. Stories of stories in footnote form. Back in the everyday, ordinary objects appear newly sharp in focus and one is left walking and mythologising on their stories, from manholes to sweet wrappers and forks. Red apples are no longer red apples anymore but stories to be swallowed.

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