The truth is out there, as a popular television show used to tell us, though the statement seemed more hopeful than accurate.
In a “post-truth” world where we all seem to live in our own little information bubbles, we should question everything. Social media algorithms aren’t about truth, they’re about marketing. If the news is free, that just means that you aren’t paying for it.
#Fakenews has always been with us, though without the 21st century’s unique spin on the phenomenon. In the 18th century, there was Ossian, an epic poet in the Homeric mode whose series of poems celebrated the ancient Scots.
He never existed but was instead the invention of Scottish poet James MacPherson who “discovered” Ossian in 1760. In the 19th century there was “Spirit Photography,” popularized by the American photographer William Mumler, where trace images of earlier photographs printed on the same glass plate appeared as “ghost” images.
He and others made a roaring business of creating images that revealed these “ghosts.” It was part of the spiritualism craze that swept North America at the time. Con artists have always known that people will believe anything that purports to deliver what they want. Anything, like that their job assembling Buicks will come back if “they” would just build that wall!
Make Believe: The Secret Library of M. Prud’homme — A Rare Collection of Fakes is a response to this credulousness, and a tonic, a thoughtful look at how institutions charged with collecting and presenting history (libraries, archives, museums, and galleries) get wrapped up in distorting the truth.
So here’s the story of The Secret Library of M. Prud’homme. Someone left a wooden crate containing a collection of fake and forgeries on the doorstep of a Catholic bishop in Manitoba in the 1920s; it was among his effects when he died in the 1950s.
Since then, a shadowy group, The Friends of the Library, have cared for the collection, researched it, and now, are presenting it to the public for the first time in an exhibition that is touring he country. Halifax is its first stop.
As the exhibition description states, the objects left on the Bishop’s porch included, “forged sheet music; dubious botanical findings, counterfeited for the sake of scientific fame; and ancient Roman medical equipment. It will never be known whether the anonymous first donor to the Prud’homme library knew of the objects’ dubious origins or whether they believed them to be real.”
There’s also a website, which is well worth a visit. It’s really the best part of this project, as its photographs of the objects and its bilingual presentation of the various explanatory and descriptive texts gives as much, if not more, information than does the exhibition.
And now for the spoiler. The questions about truthfulness raised by the project are grounded in this other, essential, truth: the library of fakes is itself a fake. This isn’t much of a spoiler, really, as it is the very falseness of the library that is the content of the project.
Does the scrupulous creation of fakes end up with originals? Perhaps. That’s one of the questions that The Secret Library of M. Prud’homme leaves hanging. Scrolling through the website one becomes immersed in the fabricated stories of the various objects, presented as fakes, but created through a collaborative process between writers and artists; still fakes, I suppose, as they are not what they are purported to be. Fake fakes, perhaps.
Despite its interesting premise and engaging intellectual challenges, where the project falters, for me at least, is as an exhibition. The objects are presented in vitrines that make it hard to see many of them, for instance, often with not enough light to clearly see details.
The texts are presented on cloth banners held up by tubular display systems, practical for shipping I suppose, but clunky and awkward as a visual device. Though, perhaps the very awkwardness of the display is part of the strategy, in a project like this. It’s hard to say. You should see for yourself, after all, the truth is still out there.
See Make Believe: The Secret Library of M. Prud’homme — A Rare Collection of Fakes at the Nova Scotia Archives Chase Exhibition Gallery, 6016 University Avenue, Halifax through March 29.