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The Museum of Jurassic Technology

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I blame my grandmother. She was a great beach walker, scouring the coast for seashells thrown up by the Indian Ocean. She had eyes like a hawk, even at 60, finely tuned to any hint of a polished cowrie or the bright edge of a fan-shaped scallop half buried in the sand. And she was wonderfully generous, seeding our dawn searches with rare specimens left invitingly in my path.

This is how it begins – with an acquired awareness of the variety of things, and a desire to bring some sort of orderliness to rich tropical diversity. By the time I was bundled off to boarding school at the age of 8, I had a modest but serious collection in a glass-fronted cabinet, together with an assortment of fossils, sun-bleached bones, birds’ eggs, stone tools, old coins and other unidentified odds and ends that appealed to my curiosity.

I had, unwittingly, created the sort of ‘cabinet of wonder’ that decorated the salons of seventeenth-century Europe and paved the way for the more acquisitive museum collections of the Victorians. Francis Bacon called my kind of assemblage ‘broken knowledge’, a repository of disparate objects without real meaning. He was right to do so: random oddities and treasures are incomplete and have little scientific or artistic significance. But they can be very potent in their way, triggering memories and sparking connections that lead to insights unavailable to grand museums with all their zeal for completeness.

Real collectors know that no serious collection worth its name can ever be complete. There is always an elusive variant of the penny-black postage stamp, a lost Rembrandt, a preciously unpaired Ming vase, or an almost extinct ivory-billed woodpecker waiting in the wings. There has to be. Without that, the chase is over, the hunt brought to a triumphant, but ultimately empty, conclusion. No collector truly wants to know that every last Vermeer painting or Mozart composition has been catalogued and accounted for.

Curiosity and

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I blame my grandmother. She was a great beach walker, scouring the coast for seashells thrown up by the Indian Ocean. She had eyes like a hawk, even at 60, finely tuned to any hint of a polished cowrie or the bright edge of a fan-shaped scallop half buried in the sand. And she was wonderfully generous, seeding our dawn searches with rare specimens left invitingly in my path.

This is how it begins – with an acquired awareness of the variety of things, and a desire to bring some sort of orderliness to rich tropical diversity. By the time I was bundled off to boarding school at the age of 8, I had a modest but serious collection in a glass-fronted cabinet, together with an assortment of fossils, sun-bleached bones, birds’ eggs, stone tools, old coins and other unidentified odds and ends that appealed to my curiosity. I had, unwittingly, created the sort of ‘cabinet of wonder’ that decorated the salons of seventeenth-century Europe and paved the way for the more acquisitive museum collections of the Victorians. Francis Bacon called my kind of assemblage ‘broken knowledge’, a repository of disparate objects without real meaning. He was right to do so: random oddities and treasures are incomplete and have little scientific or artistic significance. But they can be very potent in their way, triggering memories and sparking connections that lead to insights unavailable to grand museums with all their zeal for completeness. Real collectors know that no serious collection worth its name can ever be complete. There is always an elusive variant of the penny-black postage stamp, a lost Rembrandt, a preciously unpaired Ming vase, or an almost extinct ivory-billed woodpecker waiting in the wings. There has to be. Without that, the chase is over, the hunt brought to a triumphant, but ultimately empty, conclusion. No collector truly wants to know that every last Vermeer painting or Mozart composition has been catalogued and accounted for. Curiosity and wonder depend on not knowing everything, on being happily surprised again and again as the intricacies of the world around us are revealed. The origins of both art and science lie in the infinite human capacity for imagination and amazement. And to appreciate this, it is not necessary to go to the great halls of the British Museum or the galleries of the Louvre. There are exhibits just as thought-provoking in the sly delights of Sir John Soane’s home in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, or in the extraordinary Museum of Jurassic Technology on the West Side of downtown Los Angeles. The Museum isn’t easy to find, standing on a run-down part of Venice Boulevard, flanked by a carpet store and a derelict real-estate office, close to a Hare Krishna temple and a Blockbuster Video franchise. And, I discovered, it is open only on Thursday evenings or weekends from noon to six, when it is also possible to meet David Hildebrand Wilson himself. He is a small, even elfin, middle-aged and unassuming man, though beneath his circular glasses he wears a generous Amish beard. And from the moment you meet him or walk around his museum, your sense of reality, your grasp of what ever can be known for sure, is being constantly challenged. You are not alone. Lawrence Weschler, staff writer for The New Yorker, stumbled on the Museum of Jurassic Technology ten years ago and was immediately entranced. In the first of a maze of dimly lit alcoves is the Cameroonian stink ant. It is represented by a single large preserved ant with its mandibles embedded in the stalk of a plastic fern in front of a painted tropical diorama. That’s all. But when you wonder ‘What the hell?’ and look around, you notice an old-fashioned telephone on the wall and hear a surprising story . . . The stink ant, it seems, forages on the floor of Old World rainforests and, from time to time, inhales the microscopic spore of a special fungus. This parasite lodges in the ant’s brain and takes over, producing alarming changes in its host. The ant becomes confused and wanders aimlessly around until, for the first time in its life, it leaves the ground and climbs as high as it can into the canopy, where it impales a plant and dies. Two weeks later, a long spike with a bright orange tip erupts like an alien from the ant’s forehead and sends thousands of spores from the mind-controlling fungus raining down on other unsuspecting ants on the ground. Weschler, understandably, was sceptical about this far-fetched tale. My response, as a biologist, was less dubious. I once studied South African ants that were similarly possessed by a fungus that acted like a mind parasite, persuading them to move on to the tip of grass blades where they could be ingested and distributed by passing sheep. So, mildly curious, I went on to the next exhibit. Like the first, it employed a bench and a receiver, this time recounting the tale of a certain nineteenth-century ethnographer named Bernard Maston who did his field work in Venezuela, where he reported several accounts by local people of a bat-like ‘piercing devil’ which could penetrate solid objects at will. Eighty years later, a second expedition to the same part of the remote Tripsican Plateau became convinced that they were dealing with a very special bat indeed. Not only did it navigate by echolocation, using sounds in the ultrasonic range (a feat unknown at the time), it also used frequencies verging into the very short X-ray parts of the electromagnetic spectrum. As proof, the museum offered the physical evidence of a rare and tiny bat embedded seven inches deep – ‘eternally frozen in a block of solid lead’. Now it was my turn to be sceptical, and when I cast around for verification I found a reference to the leader of the expedition as ‘Donald R. Griffith, the eminent chiroptologist and author of Listening in the Dark’. For a moment my credulity was stretched to breaking-point. There is such a book, by a leading authority on echolocation, but the author’s name is Donald R. Griffin, not Griffith. And then I realized that my leg was being expertly pulled. Lawrence Weschler fell into the same trap decorated by the same sequence of deadpan communications, all camouflaged with astonishing coincidences and wonderfully well-realized displays in the museum. But, as a good journalist should, he checked his sources by calling on an eminent biologist. He tried the stink-ant story out on Tom Eisner and was astonished to hear the scientist say:
It’s absolutely true. There’s another ant in Florida which inhales the spores of such a fungus. Occasionally you come across them, far from home, high up the stalk of some tall blade of grass. Their mandibles are clamped to the blade and a long, thin, curved pink protrusion grows out of their heads. That’s the fungus, getting set to shed its many spores. Isn’t nature incredible!
Indeed it is and Weschler has a photograph of such an ant in his witty, elegant and provocative book on the dizzy landscape that exists between illusion and reality. The problem is that we have become so used to clumsy, undergraduate practical jokes that the real thing – the skilful use of parody, distraction and concealment of the truth by circular, self-referential information – passes us by. We fail to recognize the false when it is presented, or the truth when it eventually appears. And the Museum of Jurassic Technology is a hotbed of sly amazements and pitfalls for the lazy or unwary. Weschler has now made many more visits to David Wilson’s cabinet of delights and has been joined by a select band of fans who have come to revere the MJT as the seat of modern irony, and one of the great artistic treasures of the Western world. The museum is alive and is constantly under reconstruction. Among its recent attractions are ‘The Collected Papers of Geoffrey Sonnabend’, the great mid-century American neurophysiologist who conceived a radical new theory of memory while listening to a sensational performance by the Romanian vocalist Madalena Delani at a recital on the Paraguayan bank of the Iguazú Falls. His insights are elaborated in a three-volume publication entitled Obliscence: Theories of Forgetting and the Problem of Matter. Which, sadly, is now all but forgotten. The museum, however, has salvaged and painstakingly recreated the great man’s desk and devotes a whole dark room to the memory of Madalena, which features her feather boa, several of the diva’s favourite besequinned dresses, and a plate of homemade madeleines, from one of which Marcel Proust is said to have taken a single bite. Other popular exhibits include ‘The Rose Collection of Now-Extinct Nineteenth-Century French Moths’, some of which may actually, and apologetically, be Flemish; a scale model of Noah’s Ark with the revealing information that ‘1 inch = 12.5 cubits’; a spiral horn said to have grown from the head of Mary Davis in Cheshire in 1688; a zinc-inlaid onyx box designed for holding sacrificial human hearts; and an important-looking scientific apparatus that hovers over a black turntable around which are five evenly spaced glass dishes, each holding a small mound of coloured powder. The dishes are labelled ‘POSSESSION’, ‘DELUSION’, ‘PARANOIA’, ‘SCHIZOPHRENIA’ and ‘REASON’. But it seems that a heavy measuring device has descended too far into one of the dishes, shattering it and spilling the powder of ‘reason’. A tiny sign reading ‘Out of Order’ has been stuck to that for as long as anyone can remember. The greatest treasure of all, however, is David Wilson himself. While you are in the museum, everything seems initially to be self-evidently as it is. But there is always a slight slippage, a feeling that something, somewhere, is not quite right. And Wilson never breaks the spell of that irony. He answers all questions openly, explaining that the museum acts as a repository for relics and artefacts from the Jurassic, though the map on the wall that is clearly identified as ‘Lower Jurassic’ looks remarkably like the Nile delta. He also insists that the museum encourages ‘incongruity born of an overzealous spirit in the face of unfathomable phenomena’, and that it is ‘a place where a visitor’s mind can attain a mood of aloofness above everyday affairs’. Of course. Legend has it that he once addressed an important international conference of museum people in Germany and spoke, without notes and for an hour, about the history of collections, taking the audience on a wild flight of fancy that was a critique of museums as well as a celebration of his own kind of facility. Most of those in the audience, not to mention those who were forced to listen to it in simultaneous translation, found it hard to tell whether he was kidding or not. He seldom is. ‘At one level,’ he says, ‘our displays work as pure information. But at another level, life is so ingenious and wonderful that nature turns out to be more incredible than anything one could imagine.’ Which is reason enough for the Museum of Jurassic Technology, among many other things, to include an exhibit of two dead mice on a piece of burned toast next to the caption ‘Mouse Pie: when eaten with regularity, serves as a remedy for children who stammer’. It would take a brave critic to dismiss the possibility of such advice having respectable references and sources somewhere. In Mr Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder, Lawrence Weschler has brilliantly succeeded in catching the curiosity and ambiguity of the Museum of Jurassic Technology and its self-mocking curator. He does so with wit and generosity, without pinning anything or anyone down to traditional cork pads. And he manages to venture into the free-form world of a wonderfully original mind with both imagination and affection. His footnotes, alone, are worth the price. This is a book to be treasured – and collected.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 2 © Lyall Watson 2004


About the contributor

Lyall Watson is a direct descendant of Frederick Ruysch, Louis Agassiz and John Tradescant, or at least the reincarnation of a packrat. He keeps having to move to larger premises.

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