All the Artifacts in the VPL’s Newest Exhibit are Fake

When proving a point becomes a really cool art exhibit (and a labour of love) for a local Vancouverite.

“It’s almost like a whole collection in response to the idea of what is left out of museums: whose stories don’t get told, and why museums include certain voices and exclude other voices,” says Heather Jessup, co-curator of The Secret Library of M. Prud’homme.

The multi-layered art exhibit opens Friday at the Vancouver Public Library Central Branch Exhibition Space to, yes, get us curious about who writes history, but also to engage with our natural attraction to fakes and falsehoods in unique and interactive ways. It’s an extraordinary collection of counterfeits, curated by Jessup alongside historian and author Claire Battershill, and featuring creations composed by dozens of Canadian artists and writers with the goal of encouraging attendees to scrutinize what is real and fake—a lesson most of us need to learn (or re-learn) in the age of “fake news.”

Vancouver is the last stop for this traveling cross-Canada exhibition show after its kickoff in Halifax in March. We sat down with Jessup, local author and Langara College professor, to chat about the show’s roots and what’s in store for us on the west coast.

What was the inspiration for this exhibit and when did you start the process?

As academics, my work is on hoaxes and in contemporary visual art and writing, and Claire’s work is on book history and historical documents like manuscripts. When I was working on my original dissertation, I sent out a writing prompt to friends across the country asking them if they were to think about an object that might be in a library of fakes and forgeries, what would it be and why would someone have faked it? So the project started off initially, like, 10 years ago as a writing prompt, and then it sat on my computer for about seven years. Then Claire and I saw that a Canada Council for the Arts grant was being offered for a one-time project, and we got together and imagined what it would be like if we actually made the library of fakes and forgeries. It took almost three years for us to complete the exhibit with the selected group of artists and writers, so it’s been a 10-year process.  

From your research, what makes an interesting fake?

What we’ve noticed is the motivation behind making a fake can be sometimes quite fascinating. I think most people often think of fakes and forgery in terms of money—like, “I’m going to become an amazing painter and fake a Vermeer and sell it to a museum, and then make a million dollars.” But in our collection, when the writers were prompted to write about why people would fake something, their stories were more about being left out, being jealous of another’s talent or opportunity, or compensating for stories that had been left out from historical documentation.

A Further History of Uncommon Birds.

What do you aim to say to attendees with this exhibit?

Claire and I care deeply about libraries and museums. We spend a lot of time in them as researchers. We love them, but I think it’s really important that when we walk through a museum, or even when we look at the collection of a library, that we ask what’s missing or what’s left out or whose stories are getting told and why. Often, that’s linked to privilege. In the past, dudes writing about battles has been extremely important and that’s what makes it into museums. But women raising babies or making quilts or actors creating fabulous stories—these aren’t necessarily always in museums. Neither historically have the stories of people who have been colonized.

So we wanted people to walk through and start to question the experience of walking through a museum, but also hopefully do so with some humour and good spirit and fun. I think if we’re going to change things about how our institutions are, we do need to have a hopeful sense of humour and imagination. Fake news happened well before 2019 or 2017 or whenever people started talking about it. There’s always been fake news of some kind.

Why do you think this exhibit will resonate with Vancouver audiences?

Because much of the project was built and started in Vancouver, there are some really lovely community partnerships. We’re having an art opening and a literary reading for adults; we’re having a family-friendly and musical opening with Chorus and Clouds for babies, toddlers, and caregivers; and Mobil Art is working with us on a teen opening and they’re doing a pseudonym generator and selfie station and all sorts of cool stuff. So there’s going to be three openings for the event. The Langara Makerspace students are going to be doing 3-D-printing demos and there are other workshops and activities to take part in. There are accessibility tours offered as well, including closed-eye tours designed by blind artist and accessibility activist Carmen Papilia. The entire exhibit and all of the workshops happening are free and open to the public, and that was a really important part for Claire and I, too. This is really for the public, it’s for anyone, anywhere, to come by.

Event Details

Make Believe: Art Opening and Literary Reading
July 10, from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. at Central Branch VPL

Make Believe: Teen Gala Art Opening
July 11, from 7 to 8:30 p.m. at Central Branch VPL

Make Believe: All-Ages Family Art Opening and Concert
July 20, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. at Central Branch VPL

Make Believe: Creative Writing Workshop—History, Forgery and Fiction
Saturday, July 20 from 2 to 4 p.m. at Central Branch VPL

See for Yourself: Walk and Workshop
July 25, from 6:30 to 8 p.m. at Central Branch VPL

Make Believe: Avatars, Magic and Make-Believe: A Creative Writing Workshop for Teens
August 14, from 4 to 6 p.m. at Kensington Branch VPL

Make Believe: Creative Writing Workshop—History, Forgery and Fiction
August 14, from 6:45 to 8:30 p.m. at Britannia Branch VPL

(Photo: The Secret Library of M. Prud’homme)