WESTSIDE COVER STORY : Unnatural History : Forget Reality. The Avant-Garde Museum of Jurassic Technology Specializes in the Strange, Eerie and Improbable. But Its Artistic Intent Is Serious.
As its name implies, the Museum of Jurassic Technology is an oxymoron--a paradoxical, serious, silly mystery of a place.
Solemnly, it serves up displays on a species of bat that can fly through solid objects, a mice-on-toast remedy for bed-wetting and a memory researcher who most likely never existed. The museum, billed in its introductory slide show as “incongruity born of the overzealous spirit in the face of unfathomable phenomena,” has won an international following in the seven years it has occupied a storefront in Palms.
But how to classify Jurassic has been “the subject of a lot of debate,” according to Noriko Gamblin, director of exhibitions for the Santa Monica Museum of Art.
“Many people have questioned whether it’s a museum or a work of art,” Gamblin said. “On both levels I like it. It deals with issues of presentation and authenticity in a way I find provocative.”
“They turn the notion of a museum inside out,” said Lisa Lyons, director of art programs for the Lannan Foundation, which recently awarded a grant to Jurassic. “One is never quite certain what is real and what is not, what is truth and what is fiction. You really begin to question your ability to perceive, plain and simple.”
Lyons sees Jurassic as “a work of art that makes commentary on the nature of museums.”
Jurassic was created by David Wilson, a mild-mannered 49-year-old who can usually be found at the front desk Thursday through Sunday, when the public is invited to wander through the shadowy halls.
The museum’s strange exhibits are presented with such panache and authority that the viewer may be left scratching his or her head or giggling.
Wilson, for his part, doesn’t giggle. Nor does he explain much.
“I think that it’s important to leave enough ambiguity so that there is psychological room for different people to understand the material of the museum in whatever way they see fit,” he said.
Or as his wife Diana, a lecturer in anthropology at Pitzer College, puts it: “It’s something that has to be seen and experienced. The less you know about it when you come in, the better.”
The museum, on the corner of Venice Boulevard and Bagley Avenue, hosts 5,000 to 6,000 visitors a year. They come from all over. On a recent weekend, people from New Mexico, New York, San Francisco, Seattle and Bordeaux, France, passed through Jurassic’s doors.
In September, part of the museum’s core collection went on exhibit at the Karl Ernst Osthaus Museum in Hagen, Germany. Michael Fehr, director of Osthaus, said he is “interested in artists and collections that deal with (the idea of) the museum as a museum. I think this is a very interesting contribution to this theme.”
Jurassic survives on a $60,000 annual budget with grants from the California Arts Council, the Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs, a few private foundations, individual donations, admission fees and earnings from its gift shop. About 200 members support the museum with dues. Visitors are asked, but not required, to make a $3 donation at the door.
Permanent and temporary exhibits are on display. The newest show, “Tell the Bees . . . Belief, Knowledge and Hypersymbolic Cognition,” opened in December.
“Tell the Bees” was inspired by an old encyclopedia of folk beliefs. Intrigued by the book, Wilson and a few of his volunteer collaborators began doing research at UCLA’s Clark Library.
They learned about links between “vulgar knowledge” and some of the major advances of modern science. For instance, centuries ago people from various cultures made wound-curing “medicine” based on molds; after Sir Alexander Fleming developed penicillin from similar molds, he acknowledged his debt to such collective experience.
That information is conveyed in a narrated slide show at the start of “Tell the Bees.” But the body of the exhibit consists of much stranger and unbelievable stuff.
For instance, a placard proclaims that “children afflicted with thrush and other fungous mouth or throat disorders can be cured by placing the bill of a duck or goose in the mouth of the afflicted child for a period of time. The cold breath of the fowl will be inhaled by the child and the complaint will disappear.” Inside a glass case, the bill of a duck’s head is aligned with the lips of a marble head that bears a resemblance to Wilson.
In another display, shriveled mice float in midair on a slice of toast, beside a small meat pie. Beneath are the words: “Bed-wetting or general incontinence of urine can be controlled by eating mice on toast, fur and all . . . Mouse pie when eaten with regularity serves as a remedy for children who stammer.”
The text beneath a third display says, “A woman after childbirth is the most dangerous thing on earth. All sorts of uncanny things are around the mother and infant, and if she goes to a river to wash, the fish will go away.” The display itself is a miniature wooden bed with its sheet thrown back, its miniature woman gone.
Then there’s a glass case containing only a huge, old-fashioned pair of metal shears, slightly open, pointing upward.
“One wishing ill to a bridegroom stands behind the happy man and, holding an open pair of scissors, calls his name. If the groom turns to answer the scissors are snapped, whereupon the bridegroom is rendered incapable of consummating the marriage,” reads the text.
“Tell the Bees” occupies the back of the museum. In the front are long-running exhibits on, among other things, crackpot letters received by the staff of the Mt. Wilson Observatory, the theories of a memory researcher named Geoffrey Sonnabend and the “deprong mori of the Tripiscum Plateau,” a bat that supposedly has evolved a laser-like echolocation system that allows it to pierce solid objects.
The object-piercing bat, according to the museum, was discovered in South America by Donald R. Griffith, author of “Listening in the Dark.” The museum says the bat sounds like “an old marine boat engine” while cruising above the jungle and like “a model-airplane engine” when it’s about to punch through a solid object.
In a Harper’s magazine article on the museum published in September, writer Lawrence Weschler located a bat researcher named Donald Griffin, who had written a book by that name; Griffin broke up laughing when asked about the existence of an object-piercing bat.
Geoffrey Sonnabend, meanwhile, may or may not have existed. There’s no record of him or his three-volume “Obliscence: Theories of Forgetting and the Problem of Matter” in the University of California’s library computer, although David Wilson claims to have found and read Sonnabend’s books in UCLA’s Research Library.
Asked about this, Wilson closes his eyes, opens them after a long moment and says simply: “You could keep looking. See if (the books) turn up.”
Display cases, taped narrations and slide shows convey information in a sophisticated style that owes a great deal to Wilson’s background in film. A few displays feature holograms.
In one nook, a glass case containing the head of an American gray fox emits a howling/barking sound that follows the visitor through the museum. Lean down and peer into the case, and you see a hologram of a fat man on a chair making the noise.
The one well-lit room in the otherwise murky museum is its reading room, from which museum members can borrow books. Visitors are invited to relax and leaf through volumes including “The Life of the White Ant,” “Rasputin the Holy Devil,” “A Short History of Human Stupidity” and “The Chemistry of Wheat Flour.”
A portrait of David Wilson’s great-grandmother presides over the coffeepot.
Born in Denver, Wilson earned a degree in urban entomology with a minor in art at Kalamazoo College in Michigan. Later, he studied film at California Institute for the Arts.
After graduating in 1974, he made small films of his own for 10 years, while beginning to earn his living creating animation and special effects for the movies. Twelve years ago he began putting the nucleus of the museum together and taking it to locations around California for temporary exhibits, before finding the current permanent location.
In late 1993 he gave up independent contracting to turn his part-time commitment to the museum into a full-time, though unpaid, job. He says the couple now lives on his wife’s earnings.
These days several other volunteers are also closely involved with Jurassic, helping with research, brainstorming ideas and constructing exhibits. Wilson’s collaborators include Sarah Simons, a Culver City resident who also volunteers at the Beyond Baroque Literary/Arts Center in Venice; Culver City artist Mark Rossi; Mt. St. Mary’s College student Bridget Marrin and her sister Kristina; Diana Wilson and two other Culver City residents, Rex Ravenelle and Harold Chambers. They work together in a style David Wilson calls “organic. . . . We don’t put a lot of emphasis on (individual) authorship.”
Simons said she “just fell in love” with the museum when she first walked through its doors, not long after it opened seven years ago. “I had a very deep subconscious attraction to it the instant I came in, and I’ve been very steadily involved” ever since, she said, organizing the library and performing administrative tasks.
Asked why he does what he does, Wilson seems puzzled by the question. “I couldn’t not do this now, I’m just so completely committed to the idea and the project,” he said.
The reward for his work comes from “the people that come through--the reactions that you get from people are just enormously nourishing,” Wilson said. “A lot of people have used the phrase, ‘The museum really opened me up.’ I’m not even positive I know what that means, but it sounds like a good thing.”
Not every visitor is pleased. “We get a lot of baffled people and a number of angry people, too,” Wilson said. “We definitely get people who don’t like the museum. We’ve had people come back and scratch their name out of the sign-in book so you couldn’t read it.”
The bafflement is understandable.
An “almond stone” on display is described on an accompanying placard as being carved with an intricate pastoral landscape on the front and an “unusually grim Crucifixion” on the back. The “almond stone,” which looks like an ordinary fruit pit, is suspended in midair with a mirror obligingly provided for viewing its back.
Asked if he really sees carvings when he looks at the pit, Wilson says the stone has, of course, been worn down by many years of handling. “I can’t see all that detail, but I’m sure I see some of those things,” he said.
On a recent Saturday, most visitors appeared to appreciate the museum’s playfulness. Philip Walsh, a UCLA doctoral student in literature who was paying his third visit to the museum, said he’s “extremely jealous that I didn’t make this place myself.”
“I really like the fact that it’s so much fun,” Walsh said. “It mixes what is science and what is non-science, almost pseudo-science. It’s an art museum disguised as a science museum. But it’s also science in that it shows how knowledge is attained and constructed and codified.”
Museum of Jurassic Technology, 9341 Venice Blvd., (310) 836-6131. Open Thursdays, 2-8 p.m., Friday-Sunday 12-6 p.m.
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