‘Mouse slippers’, a label from the Powerhouse exhibition The Oopsatoreum, is one of 10 labels honoured in this year’s annual Excellence in Exhibition Label Writing Competition, an international award sponsored by the American Alliance of Museums in partnership with the Museology Graduate Program at the University of Washington, Seattle.
By highlighting the remarkable work of label writers and editors, the competition seeks to champion high quality label writing and inspire museum professionals to produce their very best work. This year, the competition received 193 individual labels from 71 exhibitions around the world. Labels were submitted from museums, zoos, aquaria and libraries and represented at least three languages. Each year the selected exhibition labels are featured at the Marketplace of Ideas during the AAM annual meeting, to be held in Atlanta this year, and in the competition’s online archive.
Our winning label was written by Shaun Tan and edited by Melanie Cariss with graphic design by Wil Loeng. Helen Whitty was the exhibition creative producer. It is not a conventional label by any definition. It was written for The Oopsatoreum, a creative conceit devised by Helen and Shaun. The exhibition and an accompanying book tell the story of Henry A Mintox, a spectacularly unsuccessful inventor. As Shaun explains in his introduction, “… behind every enduring innovation lies a vast cemetery of unsuccessful, unmemorable and utterly uncelebrated achievement: the world of failed inventions.”
The exhibition showcases an odd assortment of real museum objects, each one presented as one of Mintox’s failed inventions with its own story of research, development, experimentation and ultimate failure. There are hearing aids, typewriters, porcelain cups, pull-along toys and a tea-making alarm clock. The mouse slippers that caught the jurors’ eyes are actually ‘Mouse’ shoes designed by Tokio Kamagai in 1985-86.
The label reads:
There was only one thing that Maude Mintox feared more than her husband’s interminable lectures about his latest invention, and that was mice. Determined to cure his wife’s phobia, Henry Mintox came up with his most regrettable invention of all: mouse slippers. He believe that fear could be neutralised by a simple association with an object of desire. Knowing that his wife loved few things more than a pair of beautiful shoes, he collaborated with the acclaimed designer Tokio Kumagai to create the ‘perfect cure’.
‘No other innovation has brought me closer to divorce proceedings’, he wrote, shortly after Maude had been rescued from a nearby lake. She had fallen into it after running two miles from their home, backwards all the way, desperately trying to escape her own feet. ‘While I thought the element of surprise was critical, some warning may have been appropriate. Perhaps I should have attached the slippers less securely, and waited until Maude had finished her afternoon nap.’
Other therapeutic devices such as the ‘tarantula necktie’ and the ‘rattlesnake hot-water bottle’ never reached the trial stage. They were accidentally lost by family members in a backyard bonfire.
Juror Amy Schleser commented:
“It’s hard enough to structure a story when you have all the facts, but to spin something entirely new? It’s a long label, but every sentence builds the hilarity. As a visitor, I would drag all my friends over to read it. In fact, I’ve already started sharing — my fiancé and I now joke about mouse slippers. For something that previously didn’t exist, it’s now unforgettable. I desperately want to see this show. Will someone cover my plane fare please?”
When told the news, author Shaun Tan responded, “I’m glad something so ridiculous has been measured so seriously.” Shaun is too modest because there is serious intent behind the exhibition. He writes:
“What does it mean to be truly original? Should creativity be measured only by success? Or is it really the thought that counts … no matter how impractical?”
If you would like to read more stories of Henry Mintox inventions, you can purchase The Oopsatoreum book at the MAAS Store or online.
Post by Judith Matheson, Editorial & Publishing