The Elsewhere Collaborative is a museum set inside a former thrift store and functions on one key idea: nothing enters the museum and nothing leaves. The prior owner of the thrift store, Sylvia Gray, might be characterized as an eccentric collector in her time. Operating the store from the 1940s through the 1980s, it’s a true testament to a half century’s worth of material and popular culture.
The place itself is welcoming and accessible. Entry is by donation. When I arrived for my happenstance visit, a group of young adults (probably mid-20s) gathered on chairs outside the main doors engaged in lively conversation. They stopped and asked me where I was from.
What I love best about the museum is the way in which authority is shared. Visitors may roam, touching and rearranging various objects at their own will. A couch is nestled in between bookshelves to allow for casual reading. Photography is openly welcome. The museum is also collaborative in nature; it welcomes artists-in-residence to use the found objects within the store to create rotating art installations. The museum is 100% object-reliant, with no guiding labels. Only a small framed plaque (easily missed by its placement to the side) describing Sylvia Gray’s unique story provides any curatorial voice to this museum experience.
Interpretation is solely in the hands of two groups: first, the artists-in-residence and second, the visitors. I found the experience exhilarating and counter to any other museum experience. Elsewhere questions the very need for textual analysis by focusing on museum-goers’ experiences. Another interesting fact to keep in mind is that this thrift store is mere blocks from the Woolworth’s Department Store in downtown Greensboro where the 1960 sit-ins bolstered the Civil Right Movement. (The old Woolworth’s is now also a museum: the International Civil Rights Center and Museum.) The geographic proximity to the site of one of America’s most visible acts of protest opens another window for contemplative engagement considering the thrift stores doors were open in 1960.
Lastly, the museum challenges the current notion of what makes a good artifact. Old 45s, coffee cracked mugs, and musty books could easily be tossed out. But together, in this context, they make for a damn good museum collection.
All photography by Anne E. Cullen.