Another couple of tourists wander into Tom Richards’s Faux Museum and peruse the gift shop. They take in the collections of vintage books and postcards, the spinning prize wheel, the bright colors, and the jauntily angled visitor testimonials on the walls. After a minute or two, Tom tells them that there’s a museum back behind the partition. “A critical thinking museum with a sense of humor.”
“We just came from a museum,” one says.
“Oh yeah? Which museum?”
“The Portland Art Museum.”
“Never heard of it,” Tom says. “But this is the oldest museum in the world.”
The Faux is cheerfully weird and welcoming, pulling patrons into each new interactive exhibit as they make their circuitous way behind the partition. “Thinking Outside the Chip: Alternatives to the Gravity of our Electronics”, the current exhibit, begins with a list of “Alternatives to the Internet” written on a paper bag and so overflowing with visitors’ suggestions (including “Gambling or Gamboling”, “Build a sand castle”, and “Overthrow the Govermen”) that Tom’s had to tack up two more. Scrapbooking materials and a functioning typewriter are surrounded by walls full of joyful self-expression by months’ worth of tourists. Visitors who don’t want to write can experiment in the permanent installations, the sound pods – cubbies in which one may meditate amid hanging and humming bamboo stalks, or play a melody on a keyboard that screams. The pods, as labels on them claim, were found on the Athabaskan tundra ten thousand years ago by the museum’s ancient founder, Ug Faux, as he made his way to the Pacific Northwest from Siberia.
The faux history of the Faux is a constant amidst its seasonally changing exhibits. Maps on the wall describe its foundation by family patriarch Ug as he migrated across the Beringia land bridge ten thousand years ago. Tom is Ug’s descendant, keeping the family shop alive, and since 2012 he’s been curating the museum at its current location on NW 2nd, a few blocks from the Burnside Bridge. He’s accompanied in his mission by volunteer local artists and by the Woolly Ant, the Faux’s mascot, a papier-mâché insect with a trunk and tusks who lurks above the museum on a shelf. (The Woolly Ant followed Ug from Siberia — “he’s 10,000 years old, which is why he’s so slow and brittle,” Tom explains.)
With its extensive mythology and atmosphere, the Faux feels like an institution, yet it’s only resided in its current location since 2012. Its real history is almost as silly as the Paleolithic story. Tom claims that the germ of the Faux Idea dates back to his time living in New York in the early 1990s, when he asked a grocery store cashier for a sack.
“They looked at me like I was from another planet – which I was, I was from back here. The word they wanted was bag. So after that I created a History of the Paper Bag Museum in my bedroom. Not too many people saw it, but once I came back to Portland I expanded it into the first version of the museum.” The first Faux existed for only six months in 1992, in the New Market Theater Building, before his partner became ill and Tom took a job at Kinko's, but it set the tone for what was to come.
“Our very first exhibit was called ‘The Gates of Hell’, which is not a name you want to have if you’re trying to get families to come to your new museum, and we had four big gates – Watergate, Iran-Contra-gate, Envirogate and some other gate – that you could walk through to experience different hells.” Follow-up themes included the “Monument to the 7th Dimension”, “Presidential Briefs: The Underwear of the Presidents”, and “One Dollar, One Vote”, wherein visitors could pay to elect the President of the New World Order. “It used to cost a dollar to get into the Faux, but if you paid two, you could vote twice. We had real voting booths and everything.”
The current show is only running for another week, but Tom will be opening up “The Lost Secrets of the Bennett-Brackett Portfolios, or Perdita Secreta Portfolios Bennett-Brackett: Getting to the Roots of a Botanical Mystery”, a collaboration with Portland artist Jessica Brackett, soon afterwards. When setting up a new exhibit, he usually works for a week straight, sometimes for 48 hours at a time, repainting, rearranging and collecting new pieces. Despite putting in that hard work, he doesn’t prod casual passersby to enter the museum unless they’re really interested: “I always say that while 99% of the people who go through the museum enjoy it, 30% of the people who just come in and look around the gift shop wouldn’t.” The colorful whimsy of the Faux certainly holds no appeal for cynics, and Tom knows it. He does welcomes Reed students, and young artists – “they don’t really know what art is, and I like that” – but his disdain for “hipsters” is such that he proudly admits to wearing colorful clothes to Last Thursday just to throw off groups of posers dressed in all black. But he has nothing to fear at his museum: “Hipsters don’t go inside, because they’re not people who think for themselves.” He glances sidelong at the newest patron, an older guy with a neat haircut and a large geometric tattoo on his arm who’s browsing the greeting cards. “I’ll check this guy’s ID, make sure he’s not a hipster.”
Suspected Hipster leaves without checking out the museum, but that’s okay. There’s no room for apathy at the Faux – even the faux history is earnestly faux. Tom’s patrons and fans appreciate it, too. At the end of one of the typewritten pages on the wall is a written conversation between two patrons:
//sylvia: jayde, do we like it here?
//jayde: i dont like to use this word lightly, so know that i mean it when i tell you, dear sylvia, that i adore this place. and i never want to leave.
The Faux Museum is open at 139 NW 2nd Avenue from 12 to 6 PM Tuesday to Saturday, and 12 to 5 PM on Sunday. Admission is $5 for students.
CORRECTION: The article as published stated that after the first Faux shut down, Tom "had to go back into the insurance business." It has been changed to reflect that Tom went to work for Kinko's, which gave him insurance benefits.