Curatorial Perspective Once Removed in John Olmsted’s Earth Planet Museum

5.3 / On Collecting

Curatorial Perspective Once Removed in John

Olmsted’s Earth Planet Museum

By Amanda Roscoe Mayo, Roula Seikaly February 6, 2014

Taxidermy, fossils, arrowheads, stereo viewers and stereographs featuring the land and nature, Maidu grinding stones

Stately columns reminiscent of Greek and Roman architecture, majestic stairways, galleries named for philanthropic supporters full of rare and priceless objects: this is the architecture one associates with museums. However, the subject of this article is not a typical museum; the scene is Grass Valley, a languid Northern California town nestled in the Sierra foothills. The museum’s building is a defunct Catholic orphanage and school, originally populated by children who had lost their fathers to mining accidents, the leading cause of fatalities at the turn of the twentieth century in a region developed by the industry. Since the 1970s, the building has been occupied by St. Joseph’s Cultural Center and home to artist studios, the Grass Valley Museum, a thrift store, and—the focus of our undertaking—the Earth Planet Museum.

One detects a noticeable shift in temperature descending into the Center’s exterior corridor that runs alongside its stone foundation to reach a simple wooden door. Because of the summer heat (and whatever is lurking in the shadows beneath this reportedly haunted building), visitors might feel a sense of urgency to move from the damp, dark corridor into what lies beyond that door. It creaks open to reveal a red-carpet path wide enough for a single person and leads to two shotgun rooms that mirror the path one takes to get there. The air is still and cool but filled with the musty scent of books, aged wood, and century-old dust.

There is an enormous amount of material in these rooms. Immediately to the left of the doorway is a glass cupboard housing a rock and mineral collection, next to which a line of typewriters spanning decades holds rank. While this scene might be the worst nightmare of someone who suffers from claustrophobia, the scores of artifacts occupying every inch of space are in fact more or less organized in their presentation. The second room is full of materials from the natural world: taxidermy, fossils, arrowheads, stereo viewers and stereographs featuring the land and nature, Maidu grinding stones, and didactic wall panels about the pygmy forest of Mendocino. In our undertaking to catalog the contents and concept of the Earth Planet Museum, two themes emerged: a portrait of the man behind the collection and the significance of ongoing, shared discovery present in any collection.1

The museum stretches through four additional rooms, each space defined by a narrative messily birthed from the mind of its founder and curator John Olmsted, a distant relative of Frederick Law Olmsted, the renowned nineteenth-century landscape architect who designed Central Park in New York City and, closer to home, Mountain View Cemetery in Oakland. John Olmsted assembled and organized the collection at the Earth Planet Museum to convey his passions for nature, environmental stewardship, and technology. In the process he demonstrated the psychic heights and depths of collecting. What follows are some thoughts on the museum, its contents and organization, John Olmsted (a man we know only secondhand), and what it means to be a collector.

Baudrillard suggests that a collector’s pleasure derives from lingering over or handling coveted items

Olmsted was an explorer, and his desire to uncover the world’s mysteries was staggering. When one embarks upon an exploration, the hope of discovery is deeply rooted in its intention: there is little in life that can match the elation of discovering something new, whether it’s new to the explorer or the world. As surveyors of Olmsted’s collection, we found that the Earth Planet Museum offered us both discovery and confirmation as we surmised his intentions for the collection. Most importantly, however, it aligned us with the man himself, allowing us to share in the responsibility of the discovery. By examining individual items and speculating on how Olmsted selected each one to fill a position in the collection, we came to discern an overall concept of the thematic rooms and the museum as a whole.

As our work to document the holdings of the Earth Planet Museum unfolded, we discovered that the objects Olmsted collected had little monetary value, save for his antique furniture and books. Writing in 1994, the cultural theorist Jean Baudrillard posited that the monetary value of a collected object is far outweighed by what else it can offer, such as the satisfaction of ownership and the knowledge that another person is bereft of that coveted item: “As much in the humblest of everyday objects as in the loftiest of rarities, [collecting] is the indispensable nourishment of ownership and the passionate game of possession."2 In other words, regardless of an object’s commodity value when first created, its emotional value and place within the guarded confines of the collection are paramount to the collector. It was apparent when we first arrived that the museum’s contents had not been touched or moved in many years, possibly even since Olmsted first rented the space in 1988, as evidenced by the presence of spider webs and a layer of dust from St. Joseph’s crumbling bricks. Thinking about the collection now, months after the long hours of cataloging ended, we still wonder about the physical state of the museum. Baudrillard suggests that a collector’s pleasure derives from lingering over or handling coveted items, an obsessive-compulsive cycle that is reinforced by every interaction with his prizes.3 But what of that cycle if the collector loses interest in or the ability to manage the collection?

Though the dirt and disarray might be a deterrent to those seeking interaction with the collection, these artifacts clearly held great meaning and value for Olmsted and provided him with some sort of indispensable nourishment. Arguably, the arrangement of the museum’s displays initially encourages engagement in a reverse passage through time. But Olmsted’s greater goal was to educate audiences about the uneasy relationship between nature and technology and our vital roles as the earth’s stewards. From this vantage point, Olmsted’s collection reads as an intervention, possibly even a radical one, encouraging advocacy for environmentalism. More pointedly, it defies the notion that museums must conform to a set physical or ideological structure.

alt Turn of the century miscellaneous agricultural equipment and gold panning materials, Courtesy of the Earth Planet Museum, Grass Valley. Photo: Amanda Roscoe Mayo.

The word museum is derived from muse, referring to the mythical women who inspired great literature, music, and art. Olmsted’s muse was nature, and to her he dedicated his personal and professional energies and meager income. From interviews and conversations with those who knew him, Olmsted was not averse to asking others for help, at times resorting to subtle manipulation to meet his goals. The assistance Olmsted sought ranged from physical tasks—moving items in the museum or helping clear debris from the wilderness trails he maintained—to monetary donations. With this behavior, Olmsted invokes Baudrillard’s description of the collector as obsessive to the point of sacrificing other relationships.4 Olmsted’s twin passions—the Earth Planet Museum and the Independence Trail, the nation’s first handicapped-accessible wilderness path—drew admiration from visitors and, by some accounts, reluctant but jovial annoyance from those whose lives were burdened by his persistent requests for help.

Such information on Olmsted’s character, gleaned from conversations held in the summer heat and dust of the Earth Planet Museum, might leave visitors cold to the man. We pondered the impact of the collector’s personality as we unearthed the seemingly endless spoils of the museum, often questioning how such massive and awkward objects made their way into the bowels of St. Joseph’s. Yet, with time away from the project and the museum, our thoughts of Olmsted’s manipulations have softened. Here is a man who, by the evidence we found in the museum and in conversation with those who knew him, was truly a misfit. Mirroring the itinerant, unencumbered life of his hero, the naturalist John Muir, Olmsted was compelled to choose his love of wilderness over other obligations. He ran up debts and failed to pay rent on the space housing the Earth Planet Museum for years at a time. And the collection, both the product of one man’s lifework and a physical burden to those left to manage it, now awaits either disbursal or acquisition by another institution. For all of these offenses, Olmsted could certainly be dismissed outright. But, as Baudrillard suggests, the passion that drives the collector—a force that surely drove Olmsted—leans toward mania. If the drive to possess was beyond his capability to control, judgment has no place in this consideration.

After spending months with the material, we concluded that Olmsted intended the Earth Planet Museum as an educational tool. In many ways, this legacy lives on through the objects. For example, we knew nothing of the Maidu, an indigenous people of Northern California, or their customs, which are heavily represented through artifacts, such as grinding stones, tools, and projectile points or arrowheads the Maidu people used in their daily lives. Such effects are still noticeable on the land and to those who live in the area today through boulders scattered throughout the foothills and used to mill large amounts of grain and flour, a site containing shards of stone, and rock left over from making weapons and tools. By surveying the collection through an educational lens, we can reconcile its disparate elements without the presence of its founder, who passed away in March 2011.

The collection and its objects are codependent, inextricably linked in their containment

We discovered the dual meanings of the objects of the Earth Planet Museum’s collection: each object has a meaning as a diagnostic artifact as well as a meaning based on the significance of its residence in a contemporaneous collection. In her seminal text On Longing, Susan Stewart outlines the importance of the lone object as a souvenir and how its meaning is transferred once it enters a collection: "The souvenir involves the displacement of attention into the past. The souvenir is not simply an object appearing out of context, an object from the past incongruously surviving in the present, rather, its function is to envelop the present within the past."5

While the Earth Planet Museum’s collection deals in large part with the past, it continues to live in the present. As we attempted to assign comprehensive theories to the objects and determine their historicity, we also needed to understand the transference of the objects’ meanings as parts of a whole collection. For example, does an object’s current financial value trump the sentimental value assigned by the collector, and which is more important in this instance?

The flip side to Stewart’s observations on the souvenir is the collection that “does not displace attention to the past, rather, [that] the past is at the service of the collection, for whereas the souvenir lends authenticity to the past, the past lends authenticity to the collection."6 Olmsted transferred his feelings as a collector to the objects he was excited by, and his imprint on them has endured through the years. The collection and its objects are codependent, inextricably linked in their containment and under the unwavering vision of their keeper. But, being once removed from the collector himself, we were able to untangle the meanings of the past and the present using empirical evidence to draw critical conclusions about the archive.

Stewart argues,

“Souvenirs are magical objects because of [the] transformation [that occurs when they become part of a collection], but this instrumentality always works an only partial transformation in order for the artifact to remain immediately interesting to the investigator. The place of origin must remain unavailable in order for desire to be generated."7 

Olmsted’s organization of the museum lends itself to this type of ongoing discovery. Our investigation revealed clues that encourage visitors to arrive at their own conclusions about the objects in the Earth Planet Museum. The transference Stewart references is completed in this museum as viewers discover on their own the nature of these souvenirs. As such, our research reveals features of the Earth Planet Museum that Olmsted may not have intended or even have been aware existed.

Acknowledging that true insight into Olmsted’s decisions may not be attainable, we assigned meaning to each object, attempting to reflect the intentions of the collector. We aligned our objectives with Stewart’s proposition: Often greater than the facts at hand or the object under consideration is the power of speculation or lust to draw one’s own conclusion, and, ultimately, the context in which a souvenir can be placed is of more importance than the object itself. The stories around the objects in the Earth Planet Museum may or may not be accurate, but it is these stories that hold the magic of the collection. Truly, what is a collection if not the image of its keeper reflected back at viewers through the dust of decades?

alt Ancient Maidu grinding stone, Courtesy of the Earth Planet Museum, Grass Valley. Photo: Amanda Roscoe Mayo.

In the end, the stories of the objects in the Earth Planet Museum present the history of the world as Olmsted knew it, the region in which he resided, and the technology necessary to record society’s advancement. The ghost of John Olmsted is not restless as it roams the hallways of the museum, whispering about arrowheads and turn-of-the-century mining tools in the voice of John Muir (whose birthday he coincidentally shared). Olmsted’s presence is everywhere in the Earth Planet Museum, as much as in the scuffed loafers and tattered polyester suits as the careful material articulations of his grand vision. His ghost probably agrees that there is work to be done: what we have discerned thanks to the objects in the Earth Planet Museum is only a sliver of the story of this wizardly collector whose eccentricities knew no bounds.

Though the collector’s story is once removed—as investigators we have access to the information but not the man—the museum is a collective voice representing Olmsted. The community in Grass Valley knows parts of this whole, but whatever secrets were not shared or have been forgotten live now as a fine patina, a part of the collection that will be forever unidentifiable.


  1. The task of cataloging the museum is one we initiated and undertook on a volunteer basis. Support for the project came in part from Cheryl Haines and the FOR SITE Foundation. Thanks to this support and the California College of the Arts, the catalogue will be published in book form.
  2. Jean Baudrillard, “System of Collecting” in The Cultures of Collecting, eds. John Elsner and Roger Cardinal (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1994), 11.
  3. Baudrillard, 9.
  4. “Surrounded by the objects he possesses, the collector is pre-eminently the sultan of a secret seraglio. Ordinary human relationships, which are the site of the unique and the conflictual, never permit such a fusion of absolute singularity and indefinite seriality. This explains why ordinary relationships are such a continual source of anxiety: while the realm of objects, on the other hand, being the realm of successive and homologous terms, offers security.” Baudrillard, 10.
  5. Susan Stewart, On Longing (Durham: Duke University Press, 1993), 151.
  6. Stewart, 151.
  7. Ibid.