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From Issue #21 July 18, 2013

Through a Glass Darkly

The Museum of Jurassic Technology views reality through a special lens.

By Nate Berg Twitter icon 

It is easy to become disoriented in the Museum of Jurassic Technology. This small museum in Culver City, California, is full of dark hallways, dim nooks, and secluded corners. Its exhibits elicit a sense of dislocation as well. Their meaning can be as hard to discern as the veracity of the objects on display.

One features a small ant with a fungal spike protruding from its head, the purported result of a mind-controlling spore that uses the ant to transport, reproduce, and spread itself. A diagram of a diagonal plane transecting a cone is apparently the work of an all-but-forgotten memory researcher named Geoffrey Sonnabend. A frame holds ferns and moss supposedly taken from the tomb of Napoleon and handed down through a meticulously documented string of owners.

It is easy to succumb to confusion over what exactly this is all about. But approach the museum’s contents with deliberation and the question of what is true is overridden by the sense that no one may be certain of anything.

Opportunity knocks down a wall

David Wilson was surprised to find the door. It was 1995 and he was replacing a broken wall panel in a portion of the small building in which he had built the Museum of Jurassic Technology over the previous seven years. He wanted to know what was on the other side.

A call to the landlord revealed that the door opened to 1,600 square feet of space vacated after another tenant’s recent departure. If Wilson wanted, his landlord told him, he could have it. It would double the size of his museum, and also double the rent.

The timing was not ideal. The growing utility of computer graphics in the ’90s had rendered obsolete Wilson’s primary occupation: building physical models and miniature effects for film projects.

That business was the main benefactor of his labor of love: the Museum of Jurassic Technology, an atypical and varied collection of exhibits and objects rooted in the long tradition of the natural history museum. Without his main line of work, the museum would have to close. The revelation of the hidden door — and the extra space and extra cost that came with it — was inopportune. But Wilson couldn’t resist.

“It was exactly that month that the business was basically bankrupt, totally collapsed, and we had no money coming in,” Wilson recalls. “And I said, Sure, we’ll take it.”

How wonderful

The Museum of Jurassic Technology defies labels. It’s perhaps best described as unlike any other museum in existence. It juggles elements of a natural history museum, an art gallery, a carnival barker’s collection of oddities, and an immersive experience. Its exhibits include a series of portraits of street dogs sent into space in the early days of the Soviet space program, tiny mosaic artworks composed of individual scales from the wings of butterflies, a collection of letters of dubious certitude sent by people proffering special celestial knowledge to the scientists building the Mount Wilson observatory, and the horn said to have grown out of the back of an Englishwoman’s head in the 1600s.

Narration via a headset explains how scientists researching a bat believed to be able to fly through solid objects were able to capture one in a wall of lead eight inches thick. Viewed through prisms, the taxidermied head of an American gray fox is overlaid by a video of a man barking and howling.

Beyond its exhibits, its mere existence is an anomaly. In an era when most museums and public institutions tend to be large-scale, publicly subsidized, and serving some societal aesthetic or educational mission, the Museum of Jurassic Technology is largely the idea and work of one man: David Wilson. It’s an unlikely sort of prospect for a single person to pursue, like starting a symphony orchestra or building a trolley system. People — as in individuals — just don’t make museums anymore.

But they used to. In fact, the first “museums” were actually just collections of curiosities owned by individuals. These collections, known by the term Wunderkammmern (cabinets of curiosities or “wonders”), emerged in the 1600s as a trend, and the earliest-known examples were a mish-mash of natural objects, fakes, and art. A cabinet might contain stereoscopic viewing devices, or the skeletons of miscarried infants, or intricate carvings in cherry stones.

And so the museum of David Wilson, private citizen, is, in a historic context, the most authentic of museums. Some of the objects and stories within may seem too fantastical to be true. And indeed some (or at least some parts of some) may be. (For those craving certainty, the back stories (or not) of these exhibits are deftly explained in Lawrence Weschler’s 1995 book on the museum, Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder.)

But the Museum of Jurassic Technology seems to profess, ever so subtly, that the fact that these exhibits exist in a museum should be enough excuse to go beyond the simple question of true or false. Being able to perceive the world as it is becomes less important than being able to conceive how it could have gotten this way.

Constitutionally institutional

The weekends of Wilson’s 1950s childhood were often spent inside museums and libraries. Several were a quick bus or bike ride from his Denver home. His interest in and passion for such public institutions became especially clear, he says, when at age 8 — “or maybe 11” — he got lost on a visit to London in its Science Museum. He wandered around alone and in awe. “Rather than being frightened, I was just elated at this place,” Wilson says. “It was almost like a religious experience.”

In college, his interest in natural history museums translated into studies in biology. His appreciation for the way museums and libraries would “put things into culture” influenced his forays into filmmaking and his studies at the California Institute of the Arts in the 1970s. In a way, the concept of a museum became a religion to Wilson. It was an ideal to which to aspire, or at least to use as a cultural guide if not a spiritual one.

It is unsurprising then that on a Saturday in 1984 Wilson could be found in a workshop in the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles building a device in which a viewer, looking through a specialized optical lens, could see a small film projected onto a miniature model. To protect the electronics that ran the device, Wilson built a protective case.

“And I put it over one of these things and I just thought, ‘That looks like a display case,’” he says. Sort of like what you’d see in a museum. And right then it all made sense. “It just hit me like a freight train, and I wanted to do it more than anything in the world: have a museum.”

That Saturday, Wilson says, everything just clicked. “It was just this cascade of one thing after another for like two or three hours, just writing as fast as I could all of these ideas.” Many of those initial ideas are on display in the Museum of Jurassic Technology today, nearly 30 years later.

Fantastic voyage

Unless you’re a billionaire or an art mogul, there aren’t many contemporary models for what to do once you’ve decided you want to create a museum. Looking back through time, one could build off the legacy of 19th-century impresarios — people like P.T. Barnum, the founder of the great circus, who got his start as a traveling showman displaying an elderly black woman he claimed was the former nurse to George Washington and more than 160 years old. (When she died a year later, it was revealed that she was no more than 80.)

Wilson wasn’t selling that sort of a show, but his establishment certainly was a show. He began building some of the exhibits and displays he had imagined for his museum, such as an exhibit on “the European mole” and a model of Noah’s Ark (which, Wilson notes, is itself a model for the modern natural history museum). And then he and his wife and collaborator, Diana, began touring them around.

They’d send the displays to museums and galleries, or even just to small-town civic centers, to be put out for anyone who wanted to see. The burgeoning museum’s exhibits traveled throughout the western United States, up and down California and as far east as New Mexico — “any place that would have us,” Wilson says.

Toward the end of 1988, Wilson found a physical home for his museum in an old storeroom on a typically unremarkable commercial strip in Culver City.1 His collection augmented by an assortment of fossils and oddities given to the museum by a friend, Wilson began meticulously building the displays and exhibits for the museum, leaving home at 4:30 a.m. to squeeze in a couple of hours of work before heading to his job in the film industry. But because the level of care and detail put into the exhibits was so precise, the museum didn’t open to the public for nine months. And he’d only secured a one-year lease.

Wilson renewed — again and again — enabling the museum to live on, if precariously. In the institutionalized world of county museums of natural history and touring shows of the works of artists like Rembrandt and Warhol, Wilson’s small, independent museum had trouble fitting in. Comparably quirky content aside, the big problem was funding.

When Wilson’s work in the film industry petered out in the mid-1990s, he could dedicate his time fully to the museum, but there was almost no money to support it. Through a combination of modest donations at the door and much less modest infusions of money from various fans and aficionados, the museum managed to survive.

“It was like we’d take a step and, just as we were about to take a step, somebody would come in and put a stone underneath and support us. And then we take another step, and there’d be something else, like magic,” Wilson says. (A few notable stepping-stones were the $500,000 MacArthur Foundation Fellowship in 2001, and another supporter who recently donated funding to complete the museum’s rooftop aviary.)

If the Museum of Jurassic Technology has offered anything to the world, Wilson says with what appears complete sincerity, it’s about economics. “Because it’s essentially an economic impossibility,” he says. “That this should be able to continue does not make economic sense in any way.”

Universal acclaim

His background in film had a big impact on the way Wilson and his wife approached the creation and development of the museum. Wilson says that the special effects in older movies — a spaceship or an exploding submarine — were more obviously scale models, and required an active suspension of disbelief to enjoy. “That’s a constructive experience,” he says. Modern visual effects spoon-feed audiences.

Wilson could have invested modestly in his company in the mid-1990s and extended his career, but he was happy enough to transition out as digital effects replaced the more conventional ones at which he was an expert craftsman. And the work had little meaning to him most of the time. Staying up for two nights to complete a commercial for a butter substitute failed to seem worthwhile.

“I remember thinking, What if you were able to put everything, all of your resources, energy, financial resources, and just everything flat out on something you believed in, what would happen? In other words, what would the response of the universe be to an effort like that?”

The Museum of Jurassic Technology is that effort. That the museum is still operating nearly 30 years after its inception seems to be a sign that the universe, or at least some small part of it, approves.

Photos used under Creative Commons license. Cat’s Cradle by Jessica Curtin. Mice on toast by Kirsten. Spheres by Brendan Aanes.

  1. To be absurdly precise, the museum is in the Palms district of Los Angeles, across the street from Culver City and with a Culver City address because that’s what the post office requires. 

Nate Berg is a writer who covers cities, design, architecture and technology for a variety of publications. He is a former staff writer at The Atlantic Cities, and is based in Los Angeles.

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