Once upon a time, back in 1984, a man named David Wilson figured out his life’s work. Mr. Wilson was an avant-guard-filmmaker-turned-special-effects-designer, and he was married to the love of his life, and one day, he picked up his wife after a Tai Chi class and handed her a slip of paper. On the paper was written a single phrase: “The Museum of Jurassic Technology.”
His wife, being an astute woman, who knew and loved her husband well, said: “What is this? Your life’s work?” and Mr. Wilson said, “Well, yes.”
The “museum” came from Mr. Wilson’s long-standing love of the classification and organization of objects of both art and science in the museums of old. Museums that made no distinction between science, pseudo-science, and aesthetic objects. The kind of museum that Alexander the Great might have had. The kind of museum that could be packed into a cabinet and carried around the country on horseback, along with a generous supply of snake-oil.
The “jurassic” in the title was more euphonious than descriptive, the jurassic period being one in which little technology existed, and museums unlikely. It was 1984, and pre-dinosaur-theme-park movies, and jurassic was an odd word that evoked something musty and buried and then only recently uncovered. Mostly, it sounded good.
“Technology” referred to the operational style of the exhibits that would populate the museum. Wilson foresaw clunky telephone headsets with scratchy audio narration, and dim lights and cranky projection. Technology that would power the content of this new museum.
For a while, the museum existed only in traveling exhibits that Wilson farmed out to quirky institutions and small regional libraries. In 1988, the Museum of Jurassic Technology moved into its permanent home in a crumbly old building on Venice Blvd. in Culver City. The building was owned by a couple of doctors. The rent was pretty cheap. Mr. Wilson set up his exhibits and began his mornings at the museum standing on the sidewalk and playing arias on his accordion to attract his clientele.
And what were the exhibits about? The life cycle of a floor-dwelling ant, the Megaloponera foetens, who accidentally ingests spores of fungus and sprouts a horn from its head during its death throes. A Romanian-American vocalist who had no short term memory. Micro-sculptures of the crucified Jesus on a cross made of human hair. The myotis lucifugus, a rare species of bat that uses xray instead of echolocation to fly through objects, complete with the only known specimen of said bat, that was trapped as it flew through an impenetrable lead wall.
An exhibit devoted to “traditional beliefs” — like the belief 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 an extended period of time.”
Some of the exhibits are cross-your-heart-hope-to-die truth. Some of the exhibits are pure whimsy. It’s up to the viewer to figure out which is which. Here’s a hint: the bat thing? That’s a stretch. The ant? Textbook.
Mr. Wilson has gotten a lot of attention with his little museum. He’s been supported by the Andy Warhol Foundation, the Guggenheim Foundation, the Ahmanson, the Lannan, the Ralph M. Parsons, and the Bohen Foundations; he’s received a Creative Capitol grant; he’s had a book written about him that was a finalist for both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. In 2001, he won the prestigious MacArthur “Genius” Award.
Over the years, people have come up with a lot of theories about the MJT, and the hottest of the theories is that it’s a meta-museum: an art installation under the guise of a museum that critiques the academic language and authoritative voice of institutional assuredness. Some people have gone as far as to say “It’s as if the Smithsonian were curated by a performance artist. It’s a meta-museum, and a huge joke.” (A. J. Hostetler, Richmond Times Dispatch, April 10, 2003)
But it’s not a joke to David Wilson, who sees the shifting balance between fact and fiction in the exhibits he labors over at the MJT as a way of triggering wonder in his patrons.
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Remember that moment when you were seven years old, and it was Christmas Eve. Your cousins told you that they saw Rudolph’s red nose in the sky, a sure sign of Santa Claus in route to your house. You were just young enough to believe that it might be true, even though you were old enough to have your doubts. That moment, the one where you stuck your head out into the cold night air outside your window, craning to the heavens, the red lights of an airplane seemed like they really could be proof. You believed, even though you knew. Your spirit billowed and soared with something so removed from your life today: with wonder and awe.
That’s what the Museum of Jurassic Technology is all about: finding a place where the truth is strange and fiction seems plausible, and none of it really matters, because everything before you is something worth marveling over.