You’ve never seen a museum like the Office of Collecting and Design (in Las Vegas or anywhere else)

Jessica Oreck poses for a phot at the Office of Collecting and Design Tuesday, Oct. 4, 2022.
Photo: Wade Vandervort

My favorite chest at the Office of Collecting and Design contains dice. The late actor and magician Ricky Jay collected antique dice throughout his life, many of them in the process of decomposing. He and photographer Rosamond Purcell documented their slow crumble in the 2002 book Dice: Deception, Fate & Rotten Luck. Incidentally, the fate of the Office of Collecting’s dice, which are neatly contained in corked bottles and only just beginning to yellow and atomize, could be recorded by you.

But there are many other cabinets, shelves and containers you might prefer to investigate first. Perhaps you’ll be drawn to the enormous jar of sew-on buttons. Or the glass-fronted cabinet of specimen slides, irresistibly labeled “Diatoms,” “Insect Parts” and “Blood Histology.” A “recent donations” display includes tiny plastic toy roulette wheels, wallet-sized 1940s-era photos of doe-eyed sweethearts and an envelope that reads “A single whisker from Audrey Hepcat approx. ten years old, collected on 8/10/22.” Open drawers randomly and you’ll discover unopened packs of chewing gum from other countries, doll parts and funky old transistors arranged by color.

The Office of Collecting and Design

Taken as a whole, the Office of Collecting and Design is a humble monument to the stuff your grandparents and great-grandparents misplaced beneath the couch. In our era of impermanent, unlovable junk—items that exist only in the metaverse, viewable only on devices too ugly to save and too toxic to throw away—there’s something life-affirming to the Office’s drawers full of engraved spoons, rubber stamps and spools of thread. And admission is free; that’s nice, too.

Jessica Oreck, the founder of the Office and collector of most of its treasures, opened the museum in April 2021—at New Orleans Square in the Historic Commercial Center District on East Sahara—partially out of necessity. A documentary filmmaker and stop-motion animator, Oreck needed a working space. This Office really is an office; her studio is in the back of the house, hidden away within what could be the world’s most interesting curated collection of things. Not junk; things. These are Oreck’s things. They reflect the personality of their collector.

It’s immediately evident that Oreck is immensely curious and creative, but not beyond poking fun at the whole idea that underpins the Office.

“I was a collector before I could even talk. I mean, I just was gathering little bug carcasses and rocks and all sorts of things all the time,” Oreck says. “My mom was an interior designer who specializes in historical renovation. Somebody will say, ‘I need something from 1920,’ and she’ll create the entire room [with] everything from 1920. … Collections became a part of how I lived.

“I do feel like there’s a distinction between having a collection and being a collector. Having a collection, to me, means that it’s displayed well. It’s appealing, it’s accessible. Being a collector can often be synonymous with being a hoarder. It’s complicated, and it’s a great deep fear of mine that someday I’ll become a hoarder. But I think as long as it stays presentable and organized, then it’s acceptable,” she says. “I hope.”

It’s a bit of a miracle that Oreck and her collection are here at all, considering how much she has moved around. New Orleans-born, but a New Yorker at heart—“my longest stint; maybe 12 years”—she has lived in Germany, South Korea … Two years ago, during the height of pandemic closures, her husband’s Air Force career brought the them to Las Vegas, and Oreck got to know our town at its least characteristic moment.

“I was like, ‘Oh my God, it’s so quiet and peaceful here,’” she chuckles. “Joke’s on me.”

Peeking inside the drawers

Her career is easily picked up and moved from one city to the next, possible because she largely invented it. A filmmaker immersed in natural sciences—she has studied biology, environmental history, ecology and botany—Oreck has directed a number of acclaimed documentaries, among them 2014’s The Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga and 2009’s Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo, which later aired as part of the Independent Lens series on PBS.

But it’s more likely you’ve seen Oreck’s work on YouTube. She made two animated educational series for TED Ed, a subsidiary of the media nonprofit best known for its online lectures. The 26-part Mysteries of Vernacular (bit.ly/3RE5BtF) and the how-things-work series Moments of Vision employ stop-motion animation to entertain and educate viewers in wordy, deep-dive topics they might not have sat still for otherwise.

“That was a blast,” she says. “I love making educational content; that’s my favorite [kind]. But TED changed the way that they work with artists, [and] I was working for a while for a children’s network which then went under, so I have a ton of content and nowhere to put it.”

She laughs. “If anybody out there needs short educational content: Hello, my name is Jessica.”

Oreck says art and science are thoroughly entwined in her imagination, and have been since she saw David Attenborough’s documentary series The Private Life of Plants in a biology class at age 14. That bond strengthened when she went to work for the living exhibits department of New York’s American Museum of Natural History. For 10 years, she tended to the Museums insects, arachnids and marine life—and logged a number of hours in the butterfly vivarium.

“It was such an eye-opening experience for me, like a controlled science experiment,” she says of her time in the butterfly house. “People from all around the world would come through this exhibit, and the only thing that changed was them. I got to see how different cultures were taught to think about the natural world. … It really opened my eyes to the more social aspect of nature perception. All of my films are sort of about ethnobiology—the way that human cultures interact with the natural world.”

Those films, in their way, fed into her passion for collecting.

“When I started working in animation, I would collect things for props and sets, and then those became their own collections,” she says. “It got to be quite large.”

And there’s perhaps no better place to execute big, unusual ideas than Las Vegas. When circumstances brought her to our city, she decided to display her collection publicly for the first time.

The Office’s reading room

Though it’s in no way a natural environment, watching people interact with the Office of Collecting and Design is a bit like watching them visit a butterfly house. They go quiet as docile house cats, moving through the museum with considered steps. They mute their phones, they open drawers slowly and gently and they approach the displays as if the objects could get spooked and fly away.

There are several ways to enjoy the Office of Collecting and Design, all of them correct. You can simply visit and poke around; free museum hours are Wednesdays from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., though you can tour the space at other times for a $12 fee. Some visitors spend a long stretch of quiet time here, leafing through the books in the dark, study-like reading room, or milling around doing live sketches of the Offices’ treasures. And Oreck is open to holding events in the space—photo shoots, BYOB cocktail gatherings, even wedding receptions.

But perhaps the best way to experience the Office is to make what photographers call a “flat lay.” You’re invited to hand-pick items from the collection and arrange them in a sort of collage, which Oreck or one of her assistants will photograph from above, sending you home with a custom print. The flat lay experience costs $50 and takes about two hours, the perfect amount of time for you to experience the Office. And the print makes for a nice souvenir to hold in case Oreck, and the collection, need to move on.

“Nobody knows the future,” Oreck says. “My husband’s job sort of ends up telling us where we get to go, so at some point, we may have to leave Las Vegas. And when I first moved here, I thought, ‘Oh, I’ll just open this; it’ll be short-term.’ Really, I just wanted a place for my stuff.

“Now, in connecting with all the people that I’ve gotten to meet in creating this space. … We have a community of locals that come here every week. They go to [neighboring bookstore] AvantPop, buy books and then come here to hang out and read. And they bring new friends every time. I’ve really fallen in love with the community aspect.”

In the event that the Office of Collecting and Design does leave Vegas—and Oreck has a wonderfully out-there plan for that, too, which she calls her “Mobile Museum”—I ask Oreck how fans of the museum can create collections of their own, and she does a bit of a double-take.

“I’ve never had anybody ask me where they should start! I don’t know that I have a good answer to that,” she says. “Start with your gut; start with your intuition. … When I find certain objects, it feels like they belong or they don’t. The objects tell me where they want to be in the space, and whether they even belong in the space. I just sort of let them decide, which sounds very weird, I know. But it’s a very organic process.”

THE OFFICE OF COLLECTING AND DESIGN 900 Karen Ave. #B105, 702-613-8571, officeofcollecting.com.

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