The cast-wax head made with human teeth and hair looks so lifelike, it might almost breathe.
Steampunk-ish Victorian automatons in another display case exhibit the allure of a distant era — as does a ghostly hollow-eyed Halloween mask that predates store-bought costumes and treats.
Like all the artifacts showing at the Museum of Fear and Wonder in Bergen, these objects provoke strong emotional reactions from viewers.
They possess the unsettling power to transport our imaginations to a murky, mysterious past, when the world was much different than it is today.
Sculptural artist Jude Griebel opened the remote rural museum, south of Sundre, with his brother Brendan Griebel, an Arctic anthropologist, in the fall of 2017.
The siblings had acquired about 3,000 unusual artifacts over the past 20 years as study items for their respective careers.
In this digital age, when material things seem to no longer hold the same cache, the Griebels felt it timely to share these lovingly preserved treasures with a wider audience in a part of Alberta that they love.
The scientific cross-sections, mannequins and dolls were largely purchased from small, rural museums that were closing. The artifacts — including a Victorian rocking horse made from a still-born colt — are kept in climate-controlled storage before being rotated into the display.
Older brother Jude Griebel, an internationally known mixed-media artist, who often explores the melding of human form and landscape, said he not only used the limb, torsos and heads as study materials, but was fascinated by their craftsmanship.
Particularly life-like are the fragile and rare waxen heads. They were obtained from the now-defunct Criminal Wax Museum in Niagara Falls, the Charles Dickens Museum, formerly in Holland, and the religious Christus Gardens Museum in Tennessee, and others.
Griebel said some glass-eyed wax sculptures were created from plaster casts taken from real people’s faces. Each hair was inserted into the wax scalps by hand — a process that took up to three months.
“We have some with real human teeth” — from a Victorian-era museum that was shut down in England.
Other artifacts have a more slap-dash, folk-art quality, including a small clay head with haunted-looking eyes.
One of the larger objects is a hand-made leather and cloth doll that’s child sized and weighted like a youngster.
It was purchased from a Texas antique dealer who was only too happy to pass it on to the museum. He was unnerved by the doll, thinking it was moving on its own.
Griebel admits that viewers tend to project their own fears on particular artifacts. While many come with unusual background stories, “this is not a paranormal museum,” he stressed.
According to the www.fearandwonder.ca website, the facility the Griebels created in an old Second World War army barracks highlights “the psychological and narrative qualities of objects… The collection is comprised of emotionally complicated artifacts that speak directly to themes of human experience, identity and myth-making.”
Griebel feels these material things are little understood and need an explanation in our present throw-away society.
Visitors, therefore, can’t just show up at the museum, which offers admission by donation. They must pre-book an hour-long guided tour that tells the collection’s greater story.
Griebel hopes visitors will find it “both educating and mystifying.”
Word-of-mouth seems to be bearing this out, as the museum’s 2019 season is already sold out — except for an opportunity to take one of two group bus tours leaving July 13 and 24 from the Red Deer Museum and Art Gallery.
(The $100 ticket includes the bus ride, lunch and a stop at the new Olds sculpture park. Please contact the museum for more information.)
Bookings for the Museum of Fear and Wonder’s 2020 season will be taken through its website starting next March 15.
Meanwhile, Jude Griebel’s art will be featured in a joint exhibit at the Red Deer museum starting July 5.