A Seattle artist shows you the ‘life you might have had’ at her Museum of Almost Realities

“For every choice we make, we kill off an alternate future. Sometimes we have to live with their ghosts.”

That quote is what hundreds of locals read before they stepped into April Soetarman’s Museum of Almost Realities.

April is a Seattle artist who likes to get people thinking about their own lives — sometimes when they least expect it. We wrote about her last year, when she posted ordinary-looking signs around the city that said extraordinary things. Like the one that was on a fence at Gas Works Park: “Notice: I never stopped loving you. I hope you’re well.”

(Photo: Jen Au / Seattle Art Museum)

The Museum of Almost Realities is her latest project — a collection of fictional artifacts “from the life you might have had.” Everything from the license plate of the car that didn’t hit you to the apartment keys in the city you never lived in. Each artifact in the collection is presented in the second person, but inspired by April’s own life. One is a piano book, labeled with the year — 1998 — and this quote: “‘You know,’ she said gently, ‘You don’t have to continue, if you don’t want to.’’

The exhibit popped up at the Seattle Art Museum during SAM Remix on March 30, and April’s working on a print and web version so more people can “visit.” In the meantime, she answered a couple questions about what she thinks looking back — and letting go — is all about.

(Photo: Jen Au / Seattle Art Museum)

You invited Seattleites who visited the museum to “release their own regrets,” and more than 100 people contributed what-ifs from their own lives. What did people turn in?

“The most common themes were what-ifs in career (jobs they wished they had taken) and love (people they wished they had loved, or wish they hadn’t loved), followed by travel. Some of them were things that were beyond the contributor’s control. Those were some of the most heartbreaking, seeing people carry guilt about something that wasn’t their fault, that they had no active choice in.”

You exhibited the Museum of Almost Realities first in New York and then in Seattle. What’s one thing that was different?

“I had more people in Seattle say that the “Office Mug” artifact made them upset. It reads: ‘You didn’t buy that one-way ticket to Chicago. You played it safe, this time around. You’re looking out for your future, of course, and you stay at the job, it’s fine, you tell yourself every 12-minute morning commute, day after day. Stability is worth the price of freedom.’”

What’s something you hope people can take away from the project?

“We’re each the curators of our own personal Museum. We can choose to stuff our pockets with the past and have it drag us down, or we can discard it completely, but the Museum sorta exists in that middle ground, where we’re acknowledging how important something was, but also leaving it behind to not weigh us down in our day to day.”

Lots of people in Seattle are new here, or are making big decisions about how they want to live here. How important do you think it is to look back?

“I think it’s important to look back before looking forward, like checking your rear-view mirror. Don’t live in the past, but don’t pretend that it didn’t happen. It’s more about acceptance, and space, and distance, and reflection so you can be more clear going forward.”

April’s next project is something she’s calling the “Department of Emotional Labor.” Want to stay up to date with her work? Sign up for her newsletter here.

By Mónica Guzmán
Mónica is the cofounder and editor of The Evergrey. She's been a Seattle journalist for a decade and adores this city.