Somehow, with all the high-profile buzz around Fogo Island Inn, media has failed to tell the story of something just as magnificent, weird, and attractive to tourists looking for a unique experience: The Museum of Flat Earth in a small Fogo town named Seldom Come By. It’s part museum, sure, but it’s mostly a hub of playful art-making and tongue-in-cheek creative goofing around.
We’re talking about art projects that have seen the mayor of Fogo Island megaphoning an apology to the extinct Great Auk, attracted a Danish archaeologist to come to rural Newfoundland and adopt a performance persona, Dr. Daisy Diggle, to conduct fake archaeological digs, and the creation of a pirate radio station that tried reaching out to the abyss beyond the flat earth.
For this and more, this “museum” in our province devoted to flat earth lore and theory just received a $4,600 grant from Arts NL to keep on doing what it does. If you aren’t familiar with Flat Earth theory, there was a time when we believed the earth was flat, not globe-shaped, and that explorers were at risk of falling off the face of the earth in their boats if the ventured too far towards the ends of the earth.
Seldom-Come-By, where the museum is located, or Fogo Island in general, is supposedly one of the flat earth’s four corners, hence it being the headquarters for The Museum of the Flat Earth.
As mentioned, the museum goes beyond showcasing old Flat Earth Society newsletters and trinkets in glass cases, to hosting off-site performances, and in-house artist residencies. (Not that the exhibits are uninteresting. For instance, Farley Mowat was friends with the Society’s founders, and the museum has a note of his, about his theory of the shape of the flat earth.)
There are also materials that belonged to an eccentric Fogo-native named Bartholomew Seeker, who was understood to be the Guardian of the Corner on Fogo Island in the 1970s. Until he disappeared without a trace. It’s easy to theorize he fell off the flat earth and was never seen again.
Artist Kay Burns founded the museum as a non-profit organization in 2016. “I’ve been interested in ideas of the flat earth since doing my undergraduate in the 1980s, when I created a series of abstract sculptures called the flat earth series,” Burns told NL Arts in a recent interview about their securing their grant.
“It was an idea that resonated with me because of its quirkiness and humour, and I liked the idea of playing with ideas that are on the edge (so to speak).”
But she didn’t quite know how best to revisit the Flat Earth lore, that is, until she created a performance persona, named Iris Taylor. Iris was created to be an advocate and recruiter for flat earth ideas, who set out to reinstate the Flat Earth Society of Canada which went defunct, like Acid Washed jeans and male perms, in the 1980s. She accumulated so much material, performing as this character, that the next logical step was a formal entity and non-profit organization. And the museum was born.
“As you can imagine, all the artists have a playful edge to their work,” says Burns, “and they’re very open to working in a somewhat performative way in order to create off-site experiences for the public. The visiting artist program is about engaging beyond the Museum walls.”
In 2017, 3 visiting artists explored the idea that the great auk is not actually extinct, and is instead residing on the other side of the flat earth, where it felt safer from the persecution it was facing here on this side.
As an example of what this looked like, Marcus Coates, an artist from London, rounded up a committee of locals and visitors to craft the wording for an apology to the great auk. She then took it to the Mayor of Fogo Island to have it ratified, and the Mayor actually read it at a public event, through a megaphone on the shore, apologizing to the great auk on behalf of humanity whose hunting led to its extinction.
That same season, Michael Waterman from St. John’s he created Radio Flat Earth as an outdoor dome/tower installation, and did a broadcast for eight days including interviews and stories from locals, in between his attempts to pick up signals from the great auk and other beings on the other side of the flat earth.
For this year’s theme, the museum and its visiting artists will look at the geological sciences. The official summer program is Tectonic Shift. Toronto’s Meghan Price has already done her thing. It was a collaborative workshop that capitalized on the presence of a Geologist in Residence, Suzanne Nacha, who was in the area on account of Shorefast’s Geology at the Edge program. They made rock kites; we’ll leave it to your imagination if they flew.
Price also ran an episode of her Watching Rocks series, which is a live stream of a rock. It’s commentary on the relationship between geological time and modern society’s desire for instant results/satisfaction.
Michael Waterman will return as the 4th artist in residence this summer. Working with the community, he’ll be constructing “lithophones.” Its’ like a xylophone, but made with rocks. He’ll take participants on hikes to learn how to find resonant rocks, which they will then make into lithophones so they can pull off a public concert with their experimental instruments.
The Museum of the Flat Earth had nearly 3,000 visitors last year, despite its remote location in a town legitimately called “Seldom Come By,” located on an island accessible only by ferry. It and its neighbouring community combined (Little Seldom) has a population of about 450 folks. With a little more press and tourism plugs, this tiny town could be seeing 30,000 tourists and baycationers a summer.