Travel

LA’s Museum of Jurassic Technology presents a disorienting collection of true, plausible and unlikely artefacts, enjoyably posing more questions than answers. By Gillian Terzis.

The Museum of Jurassic Technology

The Trouvelot Hallway at the Museum of Jurassic Technology, Los Angeles.
Credit: MJT

From the moment I step into the Museum of Jurassic Technology, it’s clear not all is quite what it seems. Set on a nondescript block in Culver City in Los Angeles, it looks like no other museum I’ve seen, encompassing an unclassifiable pastiche of architectural styles. This assumption is further confirmed upon entering. The first thing you notice is its disorienting lighting scheme, seemingly designed for moles. Its display galleries are cramped and narrow. Capacious white walls and International Art English are nowhere to be seen; sometimes there’s no explanatory text at all. This approach to interior design rails against the minimalist principles that Rosalind Krauss argued now define the “radically spatial” experience of the modern museum. The exhibits look as though they’ve not been updated since the museum was established by David and Diana Wilson in 1988; its home page is a monument to web 1.0. To say the museum is strange is an understatement. In many ways it defies taxonomy, but it also is a work of art.

You might be wondering: what is “Jurassic technology”? All I can say is that there’s nothing Jurassic or technological in the museum’s artefacts. The joy is in being bamboozled. Mobile phones aren’t allowed, which makes documenting unusual artefacts or verifying their accuracy extremely difficult. This, I suspect, is the point: to muddy the waters by presenting real developments in science, history and art alongside what appeared to be elaborately constructed fictions or flimsy half-truths. Each exhibit assumed the declarative air of authority. Its melange of exhibits includes an extensive cultural history of cat’s cradles; a study of the Cameroonian stink ant; the work of Athanasius Kircher, a proponent of “magnetic hydromancy”; microscopic mosaics made from butterfly wings; miniature pinhead sculptures; and display cabinets brimming with arcana and bric-a-brac found in American trailer parks. The first autocomplete suggestion for the Museum of Jurassic Technology on Google is the word “fake”.

Later I would watch a 20-minute presentation on the scientific theories of a so-called Geoffrey Sonnabend, who may have but most likely did not write a three-volume text on memory and oblivion called Obliscence, Theories of Forgetting and the Problem of Matter. The truth doesn’t matter when the jargon is so wonderful. I learnt about the Cone of Obliscence, Perverse and Obverse Atmonic Discs, Spelean Ring Disparity and the Perverse Experience Boundary – detecting more than a whiff of Sokal. I ascended rickety staircases to reach an exhibit dedicated to the lives and deaths of the canine cosmonauts used in Soviet space programs. Here, the mood and lighting shifted. Maybe this was because I knew that this exhibit wasn’t a fabrication. Candles hinted at solemnity, as did the series of august oil portraits.

The museum’s dank labyrinth of passages and musty odour seemed like a real-life rendering of the internet as I experienced it in the mid-’90s: opaque, uncertain, suspect. As it turns out, these qualities are divisive. “Creepy” was a common descriptor on the museum’s Yelp page. Still, I found the experience to be thrilling. Before I learnt about personal brands I spent many teenage years as a cipher, assuming false identities as I lurked on Usenet, IRC channels, warez forums and private rooms on Yahoo Chat. I found myself drawn to the kinds of online performance that anonymity permitted: the freedom not merely to announce a self, but to inhabit multiple selves and personas. All of this is to say I have a longstanding admiration for elaborate catfishing schemes.

Walking through the Museum of Jurassic Technology, I often wondered if I was being catfished. I overheard many visitors express variations of puzzlement and wonder as they gawked at cabinet after cabinet of cultural curiosities. Children typically expressed unalloyed glee. Much like being on the internet, each sliver of information I encountered felt revelatory, but over time I began to question its veracity, not to mention the motives of the museum itself. David Wilson has shed little light on whether his museum functions as an interrogation of institutions and belief systems, although it’s nearly impossible not to read the Museum of Jurassic Technology in that way. But an article in the Smithsonian provides a clue: Wilson was awarded a prestigious MacArthur Foundation Fellowship – known as a “Genius Grant” – for his work highlighting “the fragility of our beliefs” and “the remarkable potential of the human imagination”.

The culmination of these sentiments reached their apex in an exhibit dedicated to old wives’ tales and superstitions. The exhibit, titled “Tell the Bees...Belief, Knowledge and Hypersymbolic Cognition”, catalogued an array of beliefs held over many centuries. Mice on toast was suggested as an ancient remedy for bedwetting. There were factoids on bees: “Bees are understood to be quiet and sober beings that disapprove of lying, cheating and menstruous women. Bees do not thrive in a quarrelsome family, dislike bad language and should never be bought or sold for money.” Then there were wedding traditions that didn’t seem that outlandish: one of a bridegroom’s shoes should be left untied during the marriage ceremony “to prevent on the bridal night his being deprived of the power of loosening the virgin zone”. The exhibit ended with a factually accurate illustration of how Scottish scientist Alexander Fleming accidentally discovered and isolated penicillin in mould.

Museums have historically been positioned as unimpeachable arbiters of knowledge and unassailable authorities on culture and history. As spectators, our role is passive: we absorb the information and knowledge delivered to us from a distance, taking it as if it were gospel. Of course, museums’ role in society is fraught. As art historians Piotr Piotrowski and Katarzyna Murawska-Muthesius wrote, museums have historically “been condemned as tools of imperialism and colonialism, as strongholds of patriarchalism, masculinism, xenophobia and homophobia, and accused of both elitism and commercialism”. Museums, like the media, filter our experiences of the world around us. They should not be interpreted uncritically. That the Museum of Jurassic Technology’s falsehoods are indistinguishable from fact feels very attuned not only to the internet of old, but to our contemporary condition.

It’s difficult to be passive in a museum that imposes upon the visitor relentless questions about the nature of truth, reality and information. These issues are timely in a moment where “fake news” is both an actual sociological phenomenon and a hilarious meme, and where a constant stream of news can leave us more confused than informed. Aesthetically speaking, fake news can look a lot like real news. Being duped, however, is often depicted as a conservative affliction. But progressives have little reason for complacency. In the wake of Trump’s election victory, sociologist Nathan Jurgenson wrote of the particular brand of fake real news that progressives embraced: an overreliance on polls, Vox-style explainers from the Beltway, and fact-checking units as arbiters of truth. My news feeds were flooded with mediocre Medium think pieces on Trump’s strategic head fakes, written by politically minded entrepreneurs and shared by people I know, most of whom work in the media.

“Factiness,” Jurgenson writes, “is the taste for the feel and aesthetic of ‘facts’, often at the expense” of the truth. We read not necessarily to challenge our assumptions, but to assuage them, because being held captive by confirmation bias is, in its own way, comforting. But the truth is that a fixation on facts obscures deeper, uncomfortable truths about the messiness of human experience, agency and subjectivity. This is something the Museum of Jurassic Technology does more acutely than any other institution I can think of. It provokes and bewilders without apology, it leads us to rethink everything we know. It’s only when you abandon certainty that you can consider novel possibilities and regain the rarest of experiences: a sense of wonder.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 25, 2017 as "Jurassic lark". Subscribe here.

Gillian Terzis
is a San Francisco-based writer.