It started as an exhibit of artifacts from the Watergate Hotel, and turned into an exhibit of Nixon masks. Or, more to the point, a happening inspired by memories of wearing them, along with sundry news items about robbers disguised as the Crook-in-Chief, and a stripper who takes it all off . . . except her Nixon mask. It's hard to keep a straight face at White River Junction's Main Street Museum, which brings the 19th-century notion of "curiosities" into the age of irony.
David Fairbanks Ford, 46, is the man behind this delightfully eccentric institution - and his middle name recalls the more sensible natural-history museum in St. Johnsbury with good reason: same family, a few generations removed.
It appears that Ford has never met an artifact he didn't like - in fact, his collection is "based upon love," as his website sums it up. That's as good a term as any to begin to explain his curatorial sensibility, which embraces everything from icky-looking things preserved in bottles to Alamo masonry and contemporary "bad art." And those dried cats, Ford discloses, are not real mummies; they're "merely dehydrated."
Ford began to give shape to his passion in the mid-1990s; he moved the growing collections from his rambling home in Hartford Village to a WRJ storefront three years ago. Basically, if there's a good story behind an item, he'll find a way to display it.
Which brings us back to those Nixon masks. Ford was talking with a friend from Washington, D.C., where the infamous hotel and complex are undergoing major renovation. Said friend procured a few items from the place: books, silverware, an oyster plate. Naturally the conversation flowed to Nixon, and then to the masks with his likeness - beetling eyebrows, ski-slope nose, devious mien. They were wildly popular in the waning days of his ill-fated presidency and are still readily available on the Internet. Check out Wikipedia's listing for "Richard Nixon masks," and you can add to your body of useless trivia the innumerable characters who've worn them, whether in real life (Hunter Thompson) or movies (Wendy in The Ice Storm).
Obviously, Nixon masks come with loads of pre-collected lore, but even this was not enough for Ford. He sent out a survey to some 500 folks on his email list, asking such questions as "Whether or not you have ever owned a Nixon Mask, have you ever worn a Nixon Mask?" and "How did it make you feel?" One respondent was Vermont Arts Council Executive Director Alex Aldrich, whose answer to the latter question read: "My skin crawled and I had an almost uncontrollable urge to break into my own office at the Watergate (where I was employed at the time as Program Director for the National Institute for Music Theater)."
And so Aldrich's Nixon mask memories will become part of the Main Street Museum's collection. Want to contribute yourself? Ship your Nixon mask to the Main Street Museum, 58 Bridge Street, White River Junction, VT 05001. For a copy of the questionnaire, call 356-2776 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. The upcoming exhibit of stories, photographs, artifacts and, of course, masks opens November 2.