In my life, I have only visited a handful of places where time genuinely seemed to be suspended. If you have no other adventure this year, be sure to find your way to the tiny hamlet of Victoria Road to visit The Museum of Temporary Art. It is, without a doubt, one of those timeless places and an experience you won’t forget.
A labour of love and the manifestation of the fertile mind of artist Michael Poulton, the Museum of Temporary Art’s eclectic and ever-changing collection has been evolving on the site of one of only 3 historic general stores left in Canada, since he purchased it from the descendants of the original owners some 40 years ago. “Everybody has their own idea of what is,” says Poulton. “Some people think it’s an antique store. Others think it’s a serious museum. Some think it’s an art gallery.” Even though Victoria Road had once been a bustling town with 3 hotels and 5 general stores, including the museum which delivered 300 loaves of bread daily by train to Toronto, the building had been empty for 20 years. The unmistakable smell of decades of wood smoke lingers in the air. Here is Poulton explaining the origins of the building and how the museum came to be:
In addition to being a prodigious artist in his own right, Poulton is sole curator of the entire collection. He is a classicist at heart with a mercurial mind. The museum is not a study of nostalgia, but rather of attention. There are many objects that deserve our attention, Poulton believes. And he has a propensity for the art of display. By placing an object on a base, or grouping objects by category, they are transformed by Poulton’s alchemy to the status of objets d’art. A board wrapped with string, a stack of mismatched boxes, vintage matchbox labels, the face of a broken clock with the skeleton of an animal encased inside, a discarded map, a collection of smooth stones are displayed in the spirit of Duchamp’s ready-mades. The museum is a treasure trove of plinths and stands and bell jars and display cases of all sorts that elevate lost and found objects to objects of distinction or invitations to consider their artistic merit.
Each object is carefully labelled and catalogued. There are stories behind each of the objects and artworks in the museum, and whether they are composed or acquired, it is Poulton the storyteller who brings the museum to life. A stylish, lanky fellow with pale blue eyes and a graphic designer by trade, Poulton is a synesthete, a person whose senses are cross-linked neurologically. He combines the droll wit of a Maine farmer with the erudite abstraction of a philosophy professor.
The building is on the banks of the lovely Grass Creek and along with the gazebo hung with Christmas ornaments where sparrows and chimney swifts nest, Poulton annually creates an installation of “Floating Stones.” On the bridge over the creek he has stained trompe l’oeil Romanesque pillars and urns and the accidental inscription INEPT · ARCADIA · EGO, Unsuitable for Paradise Am I.
Yet I admire Poulton’s restraint. Though a salmagundi of obscure things, the museum is not creepy or kitschy, dusty or fetishistic. It’s a work of formalism, managing to transcend the pitfalls of Victoriana and to touch on a bemused geometry of thought and philosophical detachment.
“The building is like a ship – it’s got an upper deck and galley below. I always wanted to stage Pirates of Penzance here because of the building’s nautical feel,” he says. For 10 years the museum hosted and sold out 3 Full Moon Series every summer – dress-up, invitation-only events for 150 guests, featuring literary readings and concerts with performers like Tabby Johnson, whose proceedings went to charity.
A bell on the front door jingles and Poulton goes to answer it. “Most of the people who come here are lost,” he says, as a young couple enter the building somewhat slack-jawed. The entire museum is an installation and part of its charm is the element of the chance encounter, the discovery of something elaborately, absurdly, delightfully out of context, a place where abandonment of reason and hospitality collide. Poulton’s museum gives you permission to be lost. While there are original paintings, collages, assemblages and Thurberesque sketches by Poulton for sale, and memberships are available for a modest sum, the museum is deliberately undefinable. “I did sell a teapot once,” he tells me, “but it was under duress.”
You may find yourself mumbling “Curiouser and curiouser!” under your breath. In fact you may require multiple visits to The Museum of Temporary Art, in order to periodically exit time, to slip down the rabbit hole, to become a child with eyes as big as saucers and to renew your sense of curiosity and wonder.
Temporary by British/ Italian film maker Francesco Bori: