Museum attracts visitors worldwide

Ephemeron: Something of a fleeting nature, important at the moment that it’s produced, but less so as time goes on. It started as a hobby during law school. A mere three years later, Victoria criminal lawyer Jonathan Arnold’s collection of legal memorabilia has turned into an online “museum” with 125 items and visitors viewing it from at last 26 countries.

The Museum of Legal Ephemera, or M.O.L.E., got its start thanks to a contract professor who “spoke highly” of the carbolic smoke ball, Arnold tells Law Times during a recent interview. “I thought it would be fun to go and find the original ad for it.

“The carbolic smoke ball was a contracts case in 1893 and it’s responsible today for all the small print that you see in advertising and business contract agreements,” he says.

It involved a carbon inhaler that was supposed to fight influenza and the company put it out that anyone who used it for two weeks and still contracted the illness would get 100 pounds. A woman bought the ball, used it, and ended up getting sick, but when she demanded her money she was told the ad was just meant as puffery. She said, “We’ll see about that,” took them to court, and the rest is history.

Arnold acquired a copy of the ad behind Carlill v. Carbolic Smoke Ball Co. And with that a museum was born. Since then Arnold has been trolling eBay for items to add to his unique collection. In fact, he has 25 “spiders” or automatic search engines set up that e-mail him with new postings, and “I simply pick out of them.”

Says Arnold: “There’s really nothing like it out there. I thought when I was going to law school it would be interesting when they taught me about [Donoghue v. Stevenson] to see the ginger beer bottle; you’d be able to have that physical connection with the history of law.”

M.O.L.E. currently resides online on Facebook at
gid=2465756660, and has 274 members. Arnold says the collection is physically housed at his Victoria, B.C., office but he has been exploring the possibility of moving it to one of the universities’ law libraries.

“The whole point of the collection is to get it out there and get it displayed,” says Arnold, the collection curator. For the time being Facebook was a way to “get it out there. It’s been good from that aspect; people can go there, they can look at it, they can use it. I’ve had professors from as far away as Ireland use some of the pictures and presentations for law students.”

He says it “shows that people have, from a broad diversity and broad background, an interest in these type of things. A lot of what I collect is more common law related as opposed to civil law related, which sets us apart from 80 per cent of the world, but people from those jurisdictions still have a great deal of interest in the items, so that’s kind of neat.”

Arnold says he keeps his spending limit low - “I typically won’t spend over $20 for an item.” The most he spent was $175 on an “interesting law book from 1684, which is Notable Questions of Law from France and the Parliament of Provence.”

He adds that “a lot of it is just luck. It’s simply at the time it’s being bought, there’s not a lot of interest in it.”
He says that other lawyers who know about the collection drop by his office and “we go through some of the pieces.”

His latest acquisition, what he calls a “weird one,” is a vintage 1960s black glass tray depicting a newspaper story of Lady Bird Johnson dedicating a courthouse in Peoria, Ill.

“The collection is meant to be more like a pop culture collection of legal memorabilia. You can go to places like Osgoode Hall or the Law Society of Upper Canada has a collection, but it’s mostly of case law and that type of thing. I’ve never found a place that actually has a lot of pieces that would have been involved at trial or pop culture-type pieces that relate to law,” says Arnold. “It’s become lately, because of what I do, more criminal law focused, without a doubt.”

Just a random browse through the collection shows Arnold has an original ad from the London Illustrated News of 1892; crime comic books; things like ticket stubs from the Texas Huntsville prison rodeo; famous autographs including one from Lord Denning; postcards; a Scottish Semper Vigilo Constabulary police cap; many court documents including a summons issued by Benjamin Harris against Peraz Tracy; photographs of varied people from Judge Wopner to Robert Shapiro (autographed).

Each item has a write-up explaining the history and significance behind it.
Arnold also has pieces like vellum manuscripts that are too large to scan. Created prior to 1800, on calf or lambskin, typically they are things like indentures, wills, estates, and the like.

“People either really, really love it or they just think I’m nuts. It tends to be one or another,” says Arnold when asked about the reaction.

He explains that it’s a nice outlet from the pressure of practising criminal law. “My mentor principal once said you can spend 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year obsessed with whatever it is you do, but you’ve got to find something to stay sane.

This is, apart from my family, probably it for me. You’re never really away from the office [with criminal law], people call you at all hours and days, but I do this for fun and again, if it gets displayed somewhere then that’s when I’ll consider it a success.”

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