Take L.A.'s Museum of Jurassic Technology with a grain of salt

Published: Sunday, Oct. 14, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 1H
Last Modified: Sunday, Oct. 14, 2012 - 10:00 am

CULVER CITY – Bemused, amused and thoroughly confused by what I have just experienced inside perhaps America's strangest museum, I searched for a higher plane of consciousness to try to make sense of it all.

OK, failing that, I took a path one floor higher to the museum's tea room, where I hoped to find enlightenment or at least partial edification while sipping Georgian black tea from ornate porcelain cups amid other bewildered guests.

Either way, I needed a rooftop respite from the dimly lit halls of the Museum of Jurassic Technology here in the heart of Los Angeles' Westside. Overwhelmed by information, not knowing whether it was pure science or pure nonsense or some clever amalgamation, I sought the counsel of others.

Huddled in a corner were Mia Salaverry, a psychologist from San Francisco, and her daughter Antonia Blumberg, a USC student who had recently written a paper for a science class on this very museum.

Clue me in, please, ladies.

"This place is disorienting, but in a good way," Salaverry said. "It's right in line with everything I'm interested in. It's very scientifically informative."

Blumberg smiled broadly at her mom, then took pity on me and explained, "It's supposed to be unclear. It raises the question: Whose authority do you trust, who's to say this is real science or art? The stuff is so bizarre and uncanny. Is it even real? Are they messing with us? Is it a joke? Are these real artifacts? You can't be sure."

And that's the brilliance of the Museum of Jurassic Technology, which, by the way, has nothing to do with dinosaurs or a certain famous movie director.

Opened in 1988 on a strip-mall stretch of Venice Boulevard by intellectual polymath David Wilson, the museum gained a cult following as something of a meta-museum – to wit, a museum about the very concept of museums – willfully ambiguous, delightfully esoteric and forever enigmatic.

Its elaborate staging of exhibits and meticulously thorough documentation – real or otherwise – of the curious and bizarre phenomena of the natural world pays homage (or winkingly sends up; you decide) to thinkers of the 16th century who assembled "cabinets of curiosities," private collections of rare curios meant to amaze the viewer and elicit flights of fancy.

In its small way, the Museum of Jurassic Technology has done just that. Wilson has received a MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant, and New Yorker magazine writer Lawrence Weschler chronicled the museum's mysteries in his fascinating "Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Wonders," a 1995 Pulitzer Prize finalist.

Wilson, as with most metaphysicians, has not given away much about the museum's guiding aesthetic in interviews – Why ruin the mystery, after all? – but he did tell Weschler in one conversation, "We feel that confusion can be a very creative state of mind.

"In fact, confusion can act as a vehicle to open people's minds. The hard shell of certainty can be shattered, and once that certainty is shattered, then I feel people are more open to broader influences."

A museumgoer's hard shell of certainty cracks even before entering the building. It sits, innocuously enough, between a real estate office and a Thai restaurant. This cannot be the hall of knowledge about which everyone raves, right?

Inside, though, it is as if you have traveled back to Victorian times – dimly lit alcoves, antique wooden display cases, plush walls and winding corridors, sounds of the natural world mingling with operatic arias mingling with baroque music piped in through hidden speakers.

Display cases offer old-style handsets (dumb phones, perhaps?) through which to hear the audio presentations, but other exhibits feature prismatic holograms that seem somehow futuristic.

Immediately, you seek certitude, some solid intellectual footing. That, supposedly, is provided by the introductory slideshow, an audiovisual overview of what's to come.

A blandly authoritative voice, the kind kids of a certain generation heard in elementary-school films, bellows that the space is a "repository of relics and artifacts from the Lower Jurassic, with emphasis on those that demonstrate unusual or curious technological qualities."

The voice drones on, but one part of the preamble is telling:

"In its original sense, the term 'museum' meant a spot dedicated to the muses – a place where man's mind could attain a mood of aloofness above everyday affairs."

Suitably instructed, visitors then weave through single-display curios of dubious authenticity ("The Horn of Mary Davis," circa 1688, an extrusion said to have grown on the back of the Englishwoman's head) and the indecipherable ("Fruit-Stone Carving," upon which a Flemish landscape was said to be painted on one side and the crucifixion on the other) and just plain weird ("European Mole," the unimpressive skeleton of a critter seen in "all European countries south of the 59 north latitude except Ireland").

At this point, I thought, "OK, I get it. They are satirizing natural history museums but doing it with subtlety so as not to tip their hand."

But then you arrive at a major exhibit, dubbed "The Delani/Sonnabend Halls," and you start doubting yourself. Much physical space, as well as audio and textual discourse, is spent on the lives of what seems like two rather ordinary and unrelated "historical" figures – opera singer Madelena Delani and neurophysiology professor Geoffrey Sonnabend.

A large room is dedicated to Delani, her opera gowns, programs from her performances, her sheet music, even her comb.

You ask: To what end? We are told she never made an operatic impact and is best known for having short-term memory loss.

Same holds for Sonnabend, whom we are told is a frustrated academic who suffered a nervous breakdown yet still managed to produce a three-volume work, "Obliscence: Theories of Forgetting and the Problem of Matter."

An elaborate, exhaustively annotated schematic model of Sonnabend's cone bisecting "Planes of Experience" showing that "what we experience as memories are in fact confabulations, artificial constructions of our own design built around sterile particles of retained experience that we attempt to make live again with infusions of imagination."

What brings these two disparate "historical figures" together? Seems Sonnabend heard Delani sing in a recital at the famed Iguassu Falls in Brazil (the museum has a large diorama of said falls) the very night he thought up his theory of memory.

You are tempted to whip out your smartphone right there to Google "Sonnabend" and "Denali" and get set straight about whether these were real people.

Don't do it. Don't be an obsessive fact-checker. You might be disappointed by what you'll find – or not. Just go with it. The Delani-Sonnabend saga plays out like some arch Wes Anderson film, straddling the line between boredom and fascination. But you won't be bored if you temporarily suspend disbelief and open yourself up to the possibility that they did exist.

As Weschler quotes Marcia Tucker, late director of the New Museum in New York City, about Wilson and his exhibits, "He never breaks irony … everything initially just seems self-evidently what it is. There's this fine line, though, between knowing you're experiencing something and sensing that something is wrong. There's this slight slippage, which is the very essence of the place."

She was referring to the "meta" aspect of the museum, its deadpan presentation satirizing the stuffy, dust-dry conventions of so many historical exhibits.

Some exhibits, though, strain credulity to the point that even the nonscientific can catch on. That's the case with a tribute to the "Deprong Mori (Myotis lucifugous) Bats of the Tripsicum Plateau." We're told these "piercing devils" use radar systems to fly straight through solid matter.

Anthropologist Bernard Matson's field notes, the exhibit reports, claim a Mori once "penetrated the outstretched left arm of a five-year-old child. The arm apparently evidenced no lesions or wounds of any kind."

Nearly 100 years later, another researcher, Donald R. Griffith spent months trying to "catch" the Mori and finally constructed lead walls in the jungle that captured a Mori specimen frozen in 8 inches of lead.

At that point, a light in the glass case shines on the big hunk of lead, as if that provides incontrovertible proof. Turns out, the Myotis lucifugus (correct spelling) is a brown bat common in North America, not some exotic specimen. And, for good measure, Weschler notes that a scientist who worked with bats did exist, but his name was Donald R. Griffin.

Other exhibits are absolutely real – or, at least, are based on real people, such as the work of 17th century Jesuit scholar Athanasius Kircher. And ordinary life is elevated to the museum-worthy in exhibits such as the "Garden of Eden on Wheels: Selected Collections from Los Angeles Area Mobile Home and Trailer Parks."

The mind also reels at oddities such as a gallery of oil paintings titled "Dogs of the Soviet Space Program," decaying dice belonging to magician Ricky Jay, and micromosaics made from butterfly wings by 19th-century Englishman Henry Dalton.

By this time, I was too overwhelmed to care anymore if Harry Dalton really existed. His work – or whatever it was – was fascinating regardless of its authenticity.

What was needed was another trip up to the Tea Garden for sustenance. There I ran into Suzanne Kite of North Hollywood and Paul Nowell of Los Angeles, deep in conversation.

"It's the strangest thing I've seen in a long time," Kite said. "It reminds me of the Coen Brothers film, 'A Serious Man,' the whole slightly dark humor that's so funny you're not sure it's funny."

Nowell: "It's like being in some surreal French film. I'm not sure a lot of that scientific stuff is legit. A lot of it just seems like stream-of-consciousness gibberish. But that's great."

Kite, giggling: "I feel like a classier, funnier person just being here."


The Museum of Jurassic Technology

Location: 9341 Venice Blvd., Culver City

Hours: 2-8 p.m. Thursdays; noon to 6 p.m. Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays

Cost: $8 general; $5 for ages 12-21, students, seniors 60-plus and unemployed people; $1.50 for disabled people and active-service personnel in uniform; free for children under 12.

Website: www.mjt.org

Phone: (310) 836-6131

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Read more articles by Sam McManis



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