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.

Crowdfunding a Museum: The Curious Partnership of a Nonprofit Organization and a Humor Website

In 1898, Nikola Tesla began plans for the Wardenclyffe Tower, a tower meant to provide power transmission and trans-Atlantic broadcast completely without wires. The tower was built in Long Island, New York, and Tesla began his work there in 1902. The project went downhill, however; design changes and loss of funding due to financiers not being satisfied with what they gained from the project led to the tower being abandoned in 1911. Before Wardenclyffe saw another headline, it saw two decades of use by a photographic company, then two more decades of ownership by an imaging company, followed by a cleanup effort to clear away the resulting silver and cadmium pollutants.

Wardenclyffe Laboratory and Tower, 1917 (view of the north entrance)

After years of varying neglect and alternate use and a designation as a Superfund hazardous waste site, Wardenclyffe found its way back into relevancy. The nonprofit group The Tesla Science Center at Wardenclyffe formed a strange partnership with internet comic artist Matthew Inman, owner of the website The Oatmeal, best known for Inman’s tongue-in-cheek grammar comics, expressive wildlife comics, and humorous publications, including Inman’s first book, 5 Very Good Reasons to Punch a Dolphin in the Face (And Other Useful Guides).

It began with Inman’s initial post in 2012. Using The Oatmeal’s signature recipe of sincerity mixed with vulgarity and Inman’s own opinions and pet interests, Inman posted a comic titled “Why Nikola Tesla Was the Greatest Geek Who Ever Lived” discussing some of Tesla’s inventions and why Inman believes Tesla was superior to Thomas Edison, which garnered criticism with its heavy bias but served the ultimate purpose of beginning the project to save Wardenclyffe. Inman followed this with a post to his blog calling his legions of fans to support The Tesla Science Center at Wardenclyffe’s effort to purchase the land where Tesla’s laboratory still stands to save it from potentially being demolished so that a for-profit company could build a commercial center. The post explained in minimalist terms the situation: The TSCW needed $1.6 million to buy the land, and New York state would give them a matching grant if they could raise $850,000, so the nonprofit needed funding. Inman, in support of the nonprofit, began the IndieGoGo campaign aptly titled “Let’s Build a Goddamn Tesla Museum.”

Between August 15th and September 29th of 2012, the campaign not only reached its goal of $850,000 but exceeded it, gaining a total of $1,370,461, a full 161% of its original goal, from 33,000 individual donors. Inman posted on his blog that, in nine days, the campaign managed to gain over a million dollars and raise $27,000 per hour at its peak, crashing IndieGoGo.

IndieGoGo Page

In May of 2013, Inman posted an update to let his fans know that the land was finally, as of May 2nd, signed over to the TSCW. Inman also stated that, while the land was safe from being demolished, the nonprofit still needed help restoring Tesla’s lab and building the facilities needed for the land to operate as a functioning museum. Inman’s next update came in conjunction with his review of the Tesla Model S car he bought. The update called on the owner of the Tesla car company, Elon Musk, also a co-founder of PayPal and founder of the private space enterprise SpaceX, to donate to the effort to fund the construction of the museum, which was not covered with the initial campaign funds. Inman noted that Musk’s company uses the Tesla name and technology but, due to Tesla releasing his patents, is in no way required to pay the Tesla estate for the ability to use the name or the technology. Inman tweeted the post to Musk on May 13th of 2014; Musk responded, simply stating, “I would be happy to help.” After a phone call with Musk, Inman reported that “1. He’s going to build a Tesla Supercharger Station in the parking lot of the museum,” and “2. He’s donating $1 million to the museum itself.”

Inman posted the most recent update to his Facebook page on September 24th. The post offers readers two ways to continue contributing to the museum’s funding, now aimed at building a new roof for Tesla’s lab: readers can buy a shirt or sweatshirt with the Tesla Motors logo on it, or they can buy a brick in one of three sizes that would have their name etched into it, along with their company’s logo at the largest size, to be placed on the museum property to honor the donor.

So far, the museum has installed a monument to Nikola Tesla in the form of a statue near the museum’s entrance. The construction process is coming slowly, but one thing the effort is not lacking is funds. Through the unconventional partnership of a nonprofit and an internet comic author, the Tesla museum effort has raised funds nearing $3 million, those being only the readily available numbers reported by Inman and in news articles and not counting the $850,000 grant supplied by New York state.

The effects on the museum itself of such a comprehensive effort of thousands of everyday internet users working together to make the museum a reality are still unclear. The act of crowdfunding a museum is not without precedent; many museums, including the Arthur A. Sackler Gallery, part of the Smithsonian, have relied on crowdfunding to help with costs. However, crowdfunding to the degree that the Tesla museum has seen is an altogether new phenomenon. The Tesla museum has been widely funded from its inception, not only by wealthy investors as Tesla’s original lab was funded but largely by ordinary people, from science enthusiasts to everyday readers of Matthew Inman’s comics. This very wide public investment in a private museum enterprise is one that relies on the very young business of crowdfunding which, according to a post by the Future of Museums blog, relies not only on supporters but on enthusiasts. Many of those who donated were inspired to enthusiasm by Inman’s comics lauding Tesla’s inventions and decrying Tesla’s relative obscurity beside Thomas Edison. By setting Tesla up as a technological hero, Inman created an image people wanted to see glorified and therefore were willing to help fund.

It’s difficult to tell, at present, where the project will go. However, it’s clear that the Tesla museum has set a new precedent for how a museum can be founded. The museum is no longer a stuffy affair funded by the wealthy; it is a project with enthusiastic investors in all walks of life contributing what they can and want to contribute to fund something they’ve been moved to support.

To donate to the museum effort, visit: http://www.teslasciencecenter.org/donate/

Displaying the Dead: Thoughts on the Pompeii Exhibit at the California Science Center

This past summer, the California Science Center put on one of its feature exhibits for the year: Pompeii: The Exhibition. The tagline read, “What nature destroyed, it also preserved.” In promotional material, both title and tagline stood against an image of a fiery volcano. From the explosive promotional imagery, to the trailer, to the hype among the local college history buffs, the exhibit promised to deliver. As one of those local college history buffs, I made it a priority to attend. While I enjoyed the exhibit itself, what struck me most was the Science Center’s treatment of the task of putting the dead on display in a respectful, humanizing manner.

I attended on one the the Science Center’s less busy days, so the wait wasn’t long. The exhibit opened with a video detailing the events of the day Vesuvius erupted and the basic facts of the disaster for those who weren’t fully aware of the history of the site. From there, we passed through doors constructed to look like the doors of a Pompeiian villa and into the first room. The exhibit attempted to simulate a tour of a villa in an effort to show the visitors what life was like in Pompeii before the eruption. The exhibit displayed recovered statues, furniture that once sat in opulent Roman homes, various amphorae, a priceless cache of jewelry, armor featuring ancient graffiti, recovered Pompeiian medical equipment, even a reconstructed Pompeiian brothel (the adults-only section of the exhibit, understandably). After walking through the rooms full of artifacts, we were ushered into a room with a large screen and treated to a “four-dimensional” experience of the eruption of Vesuvius, complete with flashing lights and smoke machines. From there, we continued on to the grand finale: the dead.

These were not dead bodies in the traditional sense. Anyone even vaguely familiar with Pompeii knows that the ash and pyroclast buried victims in the throes of death and that any living material has since rotted away. These were only casts made when archaeologists poured plaster into the spaces in the ash and pyroclast that had been left after all organic tissue, over the last two millennia, disintegrated.

Unlike Tutanchamun’s mummy or the embalmed body of Vladimir Lenin, the thought of these casts does not inspire the fearful awe we as a culture tend to feel toward decomposing or preserved human flesh. However, there is something infinitely more personal about seeing a cast of a man struggling to crawl away from the oncoming heat and debris, of a boy who was not even considered a man by ancient standards hiding his face, or of a woman curled around the bulge of her pregnant belly.

Walking among the casts, I couldn’t help but feel a tight sensation in my gut. To look at these depictions of human beings in their final moments, all of them in agony, felt entirely too personal. There is a distinct humanness about hiding one’s face or slumping on the ground in defeat that is absent in the arranged poses of Egyptian mummies. It was a solemn room; even the youngest visitors kept their voices lowered to whispers, and I doubted they were even old enough to have truly understood death just yet.

Much of what granted the exhibit such an effect was the precise effort made by the Science Center to humanize the citizens of Pompeii. Through showing both the fantastic and the ordinary artifacts, the exhibit helped visitors to develop an empathy that comes from seeing that the people on display lived normal daily lives. It portrayed the dead as human beings, even though the remains did not consist of a clear skeleton or mummy. The people who died in Pompeii were not pharaohs, famous communists, assassinated presidents, wealthy emperors, or any of the typical deceased people we place in museum display cases. These individuals lived average lives for their day and age; some were wealthy, some worked hard to feed their families, and some were slaves. The awe of these individuals’ remains lies in their normalcy, in the simple fact that they were largely unremarkable people living lives typical for people in their situations, in their various contexts.

The humanization of the dead is a factor overlooked in many exhibits, most notably those of dead rulers. The averageness of many of the victims of the destruction of Pompeii does make this easier, but the exhibit at the California Science Center sets a good example of how to start making the dead out to be more than just dead. It is easy for a visitor to forget that a plaster cast or sarcophagus is not only a chunk of material but also a representation of a human being who once lived, breathed, loved, and experienced just as that visitor does as they view that representation. It is in part the museum’s job to ensure that the dignity of the dead is maintained by reminding that visitor that the deceased—be it a pharaoh or the remains of a Roman slave—was once a living human and deserves respect through empathy and understanding.