The Museum of the Flat Earth, located on Fogo Island, Newfoundland, was opened in 2016 by artist Kay Burns, who is the curator and director. She has collected and created a variety of material relating to the Flat Earth over the past fifteen years. Some of this work has been undertaken as her alter-ego Dr Iris Taylor, an independent researcher who restarted the Flat Earth Society of Canada in 2002. The Museum traces the history of the idea of the Flat Earth, with a focus on the 19th and 20th centuries. It does this through a series of interpretative displays, containing artefacts, photographs and diagrams. It considers the Biblical view of a Flat Earth (popular in the 19th century), the work of Victorian ‘Zetetic philosopher’ Samuel Rowbotham, and the resurgence in the 1970s of the Flat Earth Society of Canada.
While initially the Museum may appear to consider a simple issue – that the Earth is flat – the problems this creates are helpfully illustrated through the lives of those who have championed the cause of flatness. For example, Rowbotham was a proponent of the Earth as a circular disc with an ice wall at its edge, and with typical Victorian zeal, undertook scientific experiments to prove his theories, as well as a seemingly endless series of public lectures.
In contrast is Bartholomew Seeker, who lived on Fogo Island in the 1970s and worked there as a school teacher. Thus we learn that Seeker was in fact the ‘Guardian of the Corner’, because if the Earth is flat, it must have corners, and one of these is believed to be at Brimstone Head, a prominent geological protrusion on the north side of the island. We can also observe a number of his personal possessions and photographs of him, as well as an intriguing map he drew of a Flat Earth as a child. Seeker’s role is also connected to the 1970s resurgence in Flat Earth thinking when a number of Canadian writers and academics took up the cause as a satirical attack on institutional norms, acting as a local guide for the mainland visitors.
While the theory of a Flat Earth is the focus of the Museum and its displays, belief in a Flat Earth is not projected through them. We are not told that the proposition ‘the Earth is Flat’ is true and is the only correct explanation for the physical shape of the Earth. Thus the Museum begins to prompt us to consider how we know anything. It reminds us gently of the history of science, and that there are all manner of phenomena which we accept as true yet would struggle to produce reliable evidence for, including the shape of the Earth.
The Museum’s formal presentation, with a series of glass display cases, typed labels, and professional staff, provide an atmosphere of authority. However, upon closer inspection, we might begin to observe a number of epistemological cracks, including the following artefacts:
Iris Taylor’s lab coat
Dr Iris Taylor is an enigmatic presence in the Museum, symbolised by this typical lab coat which has been tie dyed in a rather attractive turquoise shade. Like many scientists, her work (in researching and creating the Museum) is on display, yet she has taken a step back as not to interfere with her personality.
Animal from the ‘other side’
This curious creature, said to be a specimen of animal life on the ‘other side’ of the world, reminds us of the human need to classify and categorise. Does it matter if we cannot quite pin down the nature of this beast? From a European perspective, even five hundred years after Columbus, we still find many curious things in North America.
A letter written by Farley Mowat, Canadian writer and environmentalist, which contributes to the Flat Earth debate of the 1970s by suggesting the Earth is in fact corrugated, a belief backed up by the letter being made of corrugated cardboard. Mowat’s suggestion is appealing as he reminds us that flatness can occur in many complex formats.
A series of globes on a high shelf
The high shelf is important here as it allows the globes to be on display but also prevents any close interaction with them. As a very prominent and dangerous symbol of spherical thinking, the Museum is the safest place to store them and to ensure they can be safely interpreted to visitors.
A flattened globe
The educational device is transformed into cardboard pieces more reminiscent of the remains of a cereal box craft project. The flattening is part of the initiation ritual for members of the Flat Earth Society of Canada, where they stomp on a globe to renounce its sphericality.
Leaving the Museum, we might wonder if all museums are really fictional spaces that allow us to make some kind of understanding of the vast complexity of the world and those who live within it.