Saturday March the 20th has been designated International Obscura Day by the team at the Atlas Obscura website. It will be the opportunity to attend a selection of fascinating events around the world, including the curious Musée Fragonard in Paris. Here I speak to organiser Joshua Foer about the motivation behind Obscura day, and to Molly Guinness, organser of the Paris event.
Joshua Foer, along with Dylan Thuras, is the co-founder of Atlas Obscura, a website he describes as being “a user-generated guide to the world's wondrous, curious, and esoteric places”. The site is a series of recommendations from users of interesting and often overlooked sites around the world which may help visitors to gain more of an insight into a place than they would from standard tourist destinations.
To Joshua Foer though, this applies equally to our hometowns. “The idea behind the Atlas is that there is a whole lot of exploration left to be done. You don't have to strike out for the "Here be dragons" parts of the map to discover amazing places. They're all around us. Starting from a recognition of that fact can lead to a much richer experience of the places where we live”.
With this in mind, Foer and his team have decided to organise an International Obscura Day. “We want people going out and exploring these places” he explains. “Too often they are under-appreciated. We believe you don't have to go to the Grand Canyon to experience wonder. It's an experience that can be found all around us, if you only know where to look”. This event will not only help people to discover where to look, but will also help them to understand, as many of the places listed have some connection to the sciences.
The website looks to focus on “places that expand our sense of what is possible and tell us something about ourselves", and Foer definitely sees it as being educational. “Absolutely”, he tells me, “all science proceeds from wonder. First we wonder at, then we wonder about, and then we learn”. So what exactly will people be able to learn about on the 20th March?
“There are so many incredible events happening all over the world, I wish I could be at all of them” says Foer. “Near Sydney in Australia, a group is going out to explore an abandoned railway tunnel filled with bioluminescent glowworms. In Niagara Falls, New York there will be a full day of re-enactments of classic scientific experiments using original, antique equipment. In Portland, Oregon, we will see a demonstration of Chernekov radiation at the world's only undergraduate-run nuclear reactor. In Tokyo, we'll be exploring the world's largest underground drainage system. In Tennessee, we'll be getting a tour of the world's largest treehouse from the minister who built it. In London, we'll be taking a walking tour of the lost River Fleet”.
Do you have any excuse for not attending one of these events?
See http://atlasobscura.com/obscura-day for more details on events near you. For those of you in Paris, see below!
Obscura Day at the Musée Fragonard, Maisons Alfort
Atlas Obscura have organised a guided tour for a maximum of 35 people at the Musée Fragonard situated inside the Ecole nationale vétérinaire in Maisons Alfort to the East of Paris. Molly Guinness, organiser of this event, told me a little about the museum and her reasons for choosing it for the Obscura Day.
Can you tell us a little bit about Honoré Fragonard and the museum?
Honoré Fragonard became famous, or infamous, at the veterinary school in Lyon, where he began working on a series of ‘flayed figures’ in the 18th century. These were carefully dissected animals which were posed and mounted using a very difficult and, to this day, secret process similar to that of plastinisation. The collection at the Fragonard Museum contains around twenty of these ‘écorchés’, which can really be classed as works of art!
Why have you chosen this museum for Obscura Day?
I've always been very keen on medical curiosities. From the artificial body parts at the Arts et Metiers museum to the Irish giant and the world's smallest woman at the Hunterian museum in London to shrunken heads at the Pitt Rivers museum in Oxford and the Catacombs in Rome. I'm not particularly proud of it, although I do feel ashamed about having enjoyed Gunter Von Haagen's Bodyworlds exhibition! It is also a museum that is not very well known in Paris, and also situated in a place that most people would never normally visit.
The museum is open to visitors on a regular basis. What will be special about the visit on the 20th?
It’s true that the museum is open regularly, but when does anyone really go so far as to book in for a guided tour? Also, being part of the Obscura day imbues it with an extra layer of excitement; the sense of taking part in such a huge event, where curious, imaginative and possibly also ghoulish people around the world are linked for one day. I hope it will attract a good crowd, too. I'm definitely planning to make a lot of new friends there!
To join the event at the Musée Fragonard, sign up here: http://obscuraday-paris.eventbrite.com/