The Subversive Museum

Many people, when they imagine a museum, will imagine something like the Field Museum in Chicago or the Louvre. In most visitors’ minds, a museum is a place of dignity and culture, which makes statements about civilization (either western or a specific nonwestern cultural group) and offers visitors some mode of experiencing or learning something through artifacts or pieces of art. Typically, there is an aspect of museums all museum-goers expect, and that is truth. We expect that a painting from the Renaissance is a genuine Renaissance painting, that the Chumash arrowheads are genuine Chumash arrowheads, and that the ancient bog mummy is really an ancient bog mummy. The museum, we expect, is a place of authenticity.

But what of places which do not quite fit with the idea of a museum as pillars of dignity and authenticity?

Recently, I read a book titled Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder: Pronged Ants, Horned Humans, Mice on Toast, and Other Marvels of Jurassic Technology by Lawrence Weschler, the 1996 winner of the Pulitzer for non-fiction. The book discusses the Museum of Jurassic Technology, located in Culver City, Los Angeles. I was interested not only because I like museums but also because, as a Los Angeles native rather proud of her awareness of the more obscure Los Angeles points of interest, I had never even heard of the Museum of Jurassic Technology, despite it being located a mere twenty minutes from my uncle’s house.

The Museum’s Storefront

The book itself begins as a discussion on the museum and its creator, David Hildebrand Wilson. The museum was created in the style of early European cabinets of curiosities, featuring an array of strange artifacts from across the world. Weschler describes some of the museum’s exhibits: a species of African stink ant afflicted by a spore which hijacks ant’s brain and causes it to grow a horn-like growth that then explodes to release more spores to infect other ants; humans with horns; and fruit pits carved into intricate sculpture.

Carved Fruit Pit on Display

The oddest thing about the Museum of Jurassic technology is that, while it is a museum, not all of its holdings are legitimately what they portend to be, and the museum makes no distinction between those and the ones which are real and “true.” The horned ants, for one, are not a fabrication. The Deprong Mori, bats alleged by the museum’s web feature to emit x-rays rather than high-pitched clicking for echolocation, are in fact inauthentic.

The Stink Ant of the Camaroon

While Weschler’s book did a lot to educate me on the topic of this strange place, I wanted to know more. Stranded two-thousand miles away from Los Angeles in the middle of the Midwest, I could not exactly make a visit, so I turned to articles and reviews posted online and scoured the museum’s website.

As a place designed as a cabinet of curiosities, the museum seems to ignore the majority of a century’s worth of museological developments. Cabinets of curiosity were created as places full of artifacts lacking defined categorical boundaries, including archaeological finds, artwork, relics, items of natural history, geological specimens, and ethnographic pieces. These objects were frequently fakes placed in the cabinet with little scholarly intent. Today, museums love boundaries; everything has its provenience, and God forbid something fake be presented as real. The Museum of Jurassic Technology, while designed as a cabinet of curiosity, introduces itself on its website as “an educational institution dedicated to the advancement of knowledge and the public appreciation of the Lower Jurassic.” It does not define “Lower Jurassic,” which helps to clue any potential visitor into the idea that a visit to this “museum” is not going to resemble a visit to the Museum of Natural History. It makes one almost wonder why it’s considered a museum in the first place.

The Museum of Jurassic Technology is something of an experiment in presenting the authentic and the inauthentic as equally true to demonstrate an idea far larger than “Look at all these items; aren’t they interesting?” The point of the museum is best expressed by Edward Rothstein for his feature on the museum in the New York Times: “This is actually a museum about museums. It takes the forms of one—the lighting, the labels, the scholarly references—and uses them to inspire wonder not just at the objects (real or invented) but at the nature of museums themselves, the way they select items from the world and allow us to recognize them as strange and wonderful.”

The Museum of Jurassic Technology challenges the preconceived model we have of the authentic museum, but it also manages to transcend the cabinet of curiosities by speaking to a human truth. Rothstein notes in his feature a “devout homage being paid to the world and to what we make of it.” It is a celebration of the human by subverting human preconception. It’s a place meant to inspire thought and appreciation of the things humans do and how we display those things. While many of its holdings would be considered fakes, they are not fakes in the context of the Museum of Jurassic Technology; they are items made by humans and presented in a way that is surprisingly honest within the context of the point the museum is trying to make.

In the twenty-five years of the museum’s existence, the museum’s status as a whole mish-mash of subversion, oddness, and honesty has allowed it to develop something of a cult following. Museum studies students regularly make pilgrimages to it. I myself, as a Los Angeles native, am planning to make my own pilgrimage when I return home for winter break, and I’m excited to see this place I’ve read so much about in person.

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2 thoughts on “The Subversive Museum

  1. The Museum of Jurassic Technology sounds interesting, a museum about a museum. Although I am wondering whether or not it was created to be a critique of museums or given some of their inauthentic artifacts/ knowledge did it turn into one after these discoveries? Also do you think it should keep its cabinets of curiosity style? Or should they move into critiquing more modern museum styles like their presence on the internet?

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  2. I am certainly sharing your enthusiasm about a visit to the museum, because it looks altogether different from any that I have visited before. The only comparison I have, similarly mentioned in the New York Times article, would be my last visit to the Ripley’s Odditorium in Myrtle Beach, SC, one of a series of museums operated across the country by Ripley’s Believe It or Not which focus on the display of unique items and human oddities, but even then although the collections are similar in theme, the objective at this museum seems vastly different and even slightly obtuse to the casual observer compared to the Odditorium. In this case, it seems that as you have said, it is intended as a museum of a museum, highlighting not only the objects of wonder on display, but also showing how strange the presentation of the objects in a cabinet of curiosities itself is, and how foreign the antiquated sensibilities of the museum seem to the modern museumgoer.

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