Invented civilisations are usually thought of as the stuff of sci-fi novels and video games, not museums.
Yet in 1972, the Andrew Dickson White Museum of Art at Cornell University exhibited “The Civilisation of Llhuros”, an imaginary Iron Age civilisation. Created by Cornell Professor of Art Norman Daly, who died in 2008, the show resembled a real archaeological exhibition with more than 150 objects on display.
Unaware of Llhuros, I started fabricating and documenting my own imaginary ancient culture using ceramics and printmaking for my undergraduate thesis in 1980. The following year, as a graduate student, I learned about Llhuros and began a decades-long correspondence with Daly.
With scams, deceptions and lies flourishing in our digital age, an art exhibition that convincingly presents fiction as fact has particular currency.
A culture made from scratch
Daly’s project was truly groundbreaking. The exhibition included a map of the excavation sites, old tools and religious artifacts that Daly had crafted, all from the culture’s distinct periods – “Early Archaic,” “Archaic,” “Late Archaic,” “Middle Period” and “Decline”.
There were translations of Llhuroscian poetry that Daly had written; soundtracks with reenactments of Llhuroscian ceremonies and songs performed by a women’s church choir; audio interviews with fake Llhurosian scholars; and a 56-page exhibition catalog with an invented bibliography and glossary of Llhuroscian terms.
Daly – with guidance from Marilyn Rivchin, a museum staffer; and Robert Ascher, a Cornell anthropology and archaeology professor – conceived of everything.
To the casual viewer,…