Recollections… from the Unknown Museum

Recollections… from the Unknown Museum, Lunch Boxes

Terminal 2

Departures Level 2, Gallery 2A
May 20, 2023 - Sep 22, 2024

Recollections… from the Unknown Museum

The Unknown Museum is an “exploration into America’s brain.” Somewhat like the scientists shrunken and injected into a human body in the 1966 film Fantastic Voyage, a visit to the Unknown Museum is a complete immersion in conceptual art and American consumerism. One is confronted by mass quantities of items that may be familiar or seem that way—products of a lifetime of carefully collecting and arranging everyday objects from the late 1940s–80s. Functioning as a calm and reflective space, the Unknown Museum encourages recollections of the past and challenges visitors to form their own ideas about what is displayed.

The Unknown Museum was founded by artist, curator, and archivist Mickey McGowan (b. 1946) and artist Dickens “44” Bascom (b. 1944) in a former automotive radiator shop at 39 Corte Madera Avenue in Mill Valley. Using the museum format to bring recognition and reverence to everyday items, McGowan and Bascom created art and installations in a singular, large room that allowed for mass assemblages and the “assault of the objects” on one’s senses. According to McGowan, “curating the museum allowed me to present my ‘two-cents-worth’ reactions to postwar American culture, its fads, trends, joys, and ‘important’ moments.” Formally opened in December 1974, the Unknown Museum became a center of local creativity, rotating its own exhibitions, displaying the work of other artists, and hosting concerts and themed events.

Museum Bedroom Scene  c. 1981 Mickey McGowan (b. 1946) Mill Valley, California Courtesy of Mickey McGowan, Unknown Museum Archives R2023.0301.001.010After Bascom moved overseas, McGowan continued as the “resident curator” and developed a unique interpretation that recalled high school science fair displays. He arranged toys and other common mid-century objects in chrome-plated aquariums from the same era; only a typewritten notecard offered a title or brief explanation. Other items were displayed in “specimen jars” with simple, descriptive labels. The museum closed in 1985 after its landlords sold the building. One year later, the Unknown Museum reopened across town in a modest two-story craftsman that McGowan rented at 243 East Blithedale Avenue. Assembled in every room and living space, the collection’s domestic setting reflected the “original intent” of the items—showcasing the previously commonplace artifacts of American consumerism at home.

The Unknown Museum relocated again in 1990 and continues as a private museum and lending archives. In the museum’s entryway, two life-sized Colonel Sanders statues stand next to drawers of early television remote controls. Dioramas in aquariums and hollowed-out TV sets occupy the living room while a classic program or the current news flickers on a working television. Opening the kitchen cupboards and drawers reveals food packaging that appears to be straight off the supermarket shelves circa 1962. Upstairs in the children’s rooms, vintage mannequins dressed in mid-century attire and accessories stand watch over toys and aquarium displays. A bed full of dolls, stacks of books and board games, and an array of other items also introduce the gender roles prescribed to American adolescents. This exhibition presents a sampling of the fantastic art and object installations from various locations of the Unknown Museum.

A very special thank you to Mickey McGowan for making this exhibition possible.


Museum Bedroom Scene  c. 1981
Mickey McGowan (b. 1946)
Mill Valley, California
Courtesy of Mickey McGowan, Unknown Museum Archives

© 2023 by San Francisco Airport Commission. All rights reserved.