The room is dusty, fusty and distinctly fuscous. It looks rather like the study of a Victorian amateur zoologist, pressed into service as Sam Spade’s office: stuffed animals and ethnographic artefacts in glass vitrines share space with battered metal filing cabinets and a Bakelite telephone. The wallpaper is a lepidopterist’s dream: a repeat print of alternating frames and roundels containing stylised images of butterflies and moths. But look more closely, and the insects metamorphose into other, potentially more disturbing shapes – for they are not butterflies, but Rorschach inkblots. And on the top drawer of the filing cabinet is a bizarre label, written in a rather childish hand that we can only presume belongs to Mark Dion, which says: “1 embalmed ones. 2 those that are trained. 3 Suckling Pigs. 4 Mermaids. 5 Stray dogs”.

What manner of a room, then, is this? Well, it’s the pithily named Bureau of the Centre for the Study of Surrealism and its Legacy in the Manchester Museum, and, despite its antiquated feel, it has only been in situ since March 2005. That’s because it is not a proper museum, in the normal sense of the word, but rather an art installation by the aforementioned Mr Dion. The 100-plus artefacts in the bureau – photographs, coins, taxidermy, fossils, “Casein Buttons on ready-made clothing destroyed by rats in a Manchester warehouse” – have been selected by him from the museum’s holdings; specifically, that huge part of its collection which lies, iceberg-like, permanently submerged from public view. As with Surrealist art, placing these disparate elements together encourages the viewer to make connections where previously there were none, in keeping with André Breton’s idea that chance juxtapositions unleash the subconscious. This is particularly true of the five pages’ worth of labels (long since separated from their original exhibits), which Dion selected by pulling them at random from a bag, rather like Tristan Tzara composing a Dadaist poem. A particular favourite reads: “Stone object; found in a grave; exact locality unknown”, an incredibly informative caption which must have edified many a museum-goer in the past.

Of course, there is more to this made-up museum than just a collection of seemingly random objects. There are Dion’s recurrent artistic themes: curatorship, taxonomy, natural history. Strongest of all, there is a sense that this book is playing a sly game with us. One photograph, for example, supposedly shows “the Manchester Giant”, a fossil dating from the Eocene Age – except that neither man nor giants had evolved by the Eocene, and the behemoth’s facial features appear to have been added in with Tipp-Ex. Elsewhere, a picture of a lizard on a straw boater is captioned: “31 Metal clip for attaching to ear of cow to number it”. This is not an isolated mistake; indeed, it is quite deliberate. The whole index is as unreliable as a Nabokovian narrator – not one of its 110 entries corresponds to the item illustrated. Yes, Dion is having a laugh. But he is also posing an important curatorial question. Why, if we cannot trust the attributions in this fictional museum, should we believe what other, more-real museums presume to tell us is the truth?

First published in World of Interiors issue 276. Reproduced with permission.

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