Shenandoah Volume 68, Number 1
Volume 68, Number 1 · Fall 2018

Our Museum of the Future

Welcome to a museum of words instead of bones. Where sentences take the shapes of skeletons. Where nouns and verbs replace ribs and vertebrae. We believe words can evoke in ways bones cannot. That they are easier for the mind to hold and make come alive. This is the premise behind our museum of the future. In the atrium we shall hang the headline attraction. In a bold and cursive font the statement shall speak, The near stillness recalls what is forgotten, extinct angels. The Georg Trakl line will be articulated with care. The mouth of it shall gape like a lunging whale. The grand statement shall hold in that lively pose for all time. We may adjust it during annual cleanings.

The museum shall house a taxidermy collection. The first feature will comprise the following: The last survey revealed three addax antelopes in the wild. We are working hard to capture its nervous disposition. Eyes shall be stuffed into the one O and many A’s, hand-painted eyes that track the visitor’s gaze, like traps like snares, these jewels that haunt. We are currently commissioning a background mural of the deserts around Niger. The vista shall feature sand sheets and dune fields. It shall contain tussock grasses and succulent thorn shrubs. It will be authentic and romantic.

Laminated questions can be appended to statements to stimulate discussion. Blue cards like, What is it like to be the last of three? Red cards like, What does functionally extinct mean? Sentences shall be rotated in and out. We already have the next feature planned. It’s possible we missed one or two baijis, but… We will emphasize the ellipsis at the end. It shall trail off and dive down like a river dolphin into the Yangtze murk. It will be dramatic and mysterious.

Numbers shall be preserved alongside words. 404 Iberian lynxes roamed the cork forests of Spain and Portugal in 2015. 30 vaquita porpoises swam in the Gulf of California last year. All 67 Javan rhinos currently reside in Ujung Kulon National Park. We shall do our best to update numbers until they become fixed. 15 vaquitas were sighted in the Gulf of California this fall. Once they become fixed we shall move them to the back.

Visitors will be able to touch the exhibits. Touching is encouraged because it facilitates connection. Please stroke in the direction of the grammar. We predict sentences with proper names will be popular amongst children. The last passenger pigeon was named Martha. Benjamin was a Tasmanian tiger. Celia the Pyrenean ibex got squished by a tree. We may chunk up complex concepts to improve handling durability. Kordofan giraffe tails can be used as dowry. 1 in 6 cheetah cubs survive the luxury pet trade. Orangutan fates are contingent upon fast food and shampoo. Elaborations can be sewn on as needed. Sentences may be stuffed with cotton to achieve the desired weight. Delicate phrases will be housed in custom foam mounts. The Bramble Cay melomy was a kind of mouse. The island it once lived on is going under. We shall make sure handling instructions are crystal clear. Please use your pinky and stroke softly.

We have designed this museum for the future. Toward the back we have installed spare cabinets. Rows upon rows of steel lockers. We shall fill them with words from the latest reports and testimonials. We will scour the world for lines from the finest odes and laments. Every strewn word and scattered sentiment. Every paragraph and eulogy not yet processed. Our mandate is to maintain intent and integrity. Fresh phrases will be freeze-dried or jarred in alcohol. Safety and security are of the utmost importance. Fire extinguishers are placed at the end of every row. The building is made from poured concrete slabs. Nothing can get in or out.

We shall train each member of the interpreter staff ourselves. We will teach them our custom catalogue system. They will be given special keys on lanyards to unlock the cabinets. They will learn where to retrieve frequently requested passages. Great auk statements, for example, reside under I and not G or AI refers to Sigurður Ísleifsson and his final account. I took him by the neck and he flapped his wings. He made no cry. I strangled him. The comments are stored in the wide-mouth jar on the bottom shelf. Please exercise two hands and a square stance when lifting.

When visitors ask—and visitors will—we shall explain that despite our best efforts, Georg Steller’s descriptions of the Steller’s sea cow are dissolving into solution. We suspect this is likely due to the fact that the original script has been translated from Latin one too many times. We can apologize and offer the partial record: An uncommon love for one another… when one of them was cut into… others were intent upon saving him… the boiled fat itself excels in sweetness…in taste like sweet almond oil… We drank it by the cupful. That is the rough order of statements in the jar. Visitors can take selfies with the fragments. Pictures are encouraged because they can trigger anamnesis. Shorter Oxford English Dictionaries are available for reference upon request. No flash photography, please.

We anticipate fewer issues with anecdotes and testimonials. Spoken words are easier to shape and compress. Oral tales are simpler to file into recesses. Dodo accounts are filed under D. Moa myths are filed under M. Entries on Haast’s eagles are found both under H and M on account of their chief prey being moas. There will be some mingling and duplication of tags. This cannot be helped. There was much mingling and duplication of fates. All this shall be covered during the three-week training session.

On the final day of training we shall delve into the art of visitor engagement. We will go over the handling of those who come to us and say, Look here, you can’t run a place on words and sentences and grief. We will urge interpreters to refrain from snark. Haven’t been to many museums, have you? is not an appropriate response. We shall train them to absorb the blow from those who shrug and say, So what. So fucking what. Words are just words, man. We don’t need to know about quaggas or pupfish or bluebucks to live our lives. We shall teach interpreters to hold at bay the hurt the rage the pity that may arise from such daggered statements. Smiling is paramount in customer service. Fair enough, that is your right to express is the standard response. You are of course technically right can be one diplomatic answer. We shall instruct interpreters to lead disgruntled guests past the jars and banners and grandsayings and deposit them at the gift shop, with a thesaurus recommendation or something by Robert Macfarlane. That shall be that. No need to waste words on those who do not wish to know their worth.

But if a visitor complains that they are tired, tired of words stitched to dead pasts and bleak futures, we will request that interpreters radio us. We will come out from the back and look the guest in the eyes. If they seem kindly yet sad, we shall ask them why they are so and listen. If they confess to being overwhelmed by loss, the loss of so many words that once rambled across a lush and motley world, we may decide to use our key. The special one with the star-shaped tip. We shall use our discretion. If we are sure, we will escort the visitor to the back, past the grandsayings and banners and jars, through the double doors with the star-shaped lock. Into the chamber where we spend our days.

Inside the chamber there is a desk. The name of the wood it was made from has since been lost. Housed inside its lacquered drawers are many glass vials. We shall gauge the visitor and guess their fancy. If they seem nostalgic we may choose the club mosses. If they seem adventurous we will select the assorted diatoms. If they seem forlorn we shall opt for the grains of feldspar. We shall use our discretion. Each activated vial is enough to fill chamber and mind. Each projection is a haiku world sheltered from time. From the mosses, redwoods and larches may sprout and rise up. From the diatoms, lochs and fjords may pool and pour forth. From the grains, sandstorms may swirl up and resume sculpting their barchan creations. There are many vials. We do not know them all. We shall leave the visitor in the chamber awhile, to dream the dream and to live inside the dream. For each vial holds a seed a germ the root behind that which we wish to save. A part of the Word that cannot be said in words. Most guests report inner stillness with the occasional transformation. Some have lived as kakapos ambling underfoot; as okapis weaving through sun-dappled forests; as aye-aye clambering up vines under the gibbous moon. Beetle epiphanies make up a quarter of all recorded out-of-body experiences.

The museum closes daily at six. The vials can never leave. The visions loop every half hour. Light is all they have to offer. When the visitor rouses we shall provide them with a comment card so they can fix their thoughts into words, before their impressions dim, before they must head back out into the hot air and the red sun of our half-life world. Membership perks are listed on the back. A family pass pays for itself after two visits. When the visitor is finished we shall walk them out the back exit, past the cold-pack storage area where we prepare sentences-in-progress. We are currently working on a replica cast for a new feature statement: We are served by organic ghosts, invading but agreeable splinters derived from a substance that pulsates like a former heart. Paraphrasing Philip K. Dick has been a challenge. We have no idea how the Ubik passage was originally constructed. We are in consultation with a theologian and certified futurologists on how best to proceed.

When all the guests have left, we shall sit ourselves down at the desk. We will sift through the day’s notes and submissions. We are seeking novel phrases suitable for framing and display. Once found we will dress them up in dignified fonts like Baskerville or Garamond. Somber tidings may be brightened up with dingbat accents. Each selection will be mounted carefully and tastefully in this, our museum of the future. Where words have taken the place of bones. A space for those curious of past and forgotten tongues. For souls seeking the way back to the grand dream they were once part of, long ago.

A first generation Chinese-Canadian, Isaac Yuen’s short stories and personal essays appear in Flyway, Hippocampus, Orion, River Teeth’s “Beautiful Things,Tahoma Literary Review, Tin House Online, and other publications. He is the creator of Ekostories, an online essay collection exploring narratives through themes of nature, culture, and identity. Isaac lives in Vancouver, Canada, on unceded Coast Salish territory.