The Museum of Jurassic Technology, located in Los Angeles,
is a place that is easier to describe by its effect than by
its content. According to Lawrence Weschler, who wrote about
the museum in his highly acclaimed book Mr. Wilson's Cabinet
of Wonder, a visit gives one a feeling of being "a
bit out of order, all shards and powder." This reaction
springs from two opposing impulses; the first is to trust
that everything in the museum is true (since after all it
is a museum) and the other is a gnawing feeling that something
doesn't seem quite right.
The best reason for trusting the latter impulse is that most
of the collection is, to varying degrees, false. To be specific,
the museum consists of dioramas revealing different aspects
of "life in the Lower Jurassic," including some
that are completely made up (a series on the life and theories
of a fictional psychologist), some that are made up but believed
true (a series on common superstitions), some that are true
but unremarkable (a series on the European mole and the night
flying moth), and a few that are both true and remarkable
(a series on tiny carvings that fit into the eye of a needle).
Although there are no direct statements on the museum's walls
which let the visitors in on the secret, the museum does have
copies of Weschler's book available, so the extra confused
and curious can discover the attraction's "true"
nature. I was one of those who, after my first visit, purchased
the book in the hopes that it would guide me out of my own
confusion. It did, but it also left me repeating "of
course" just as I do when I discover the solution to
a riddle that seems simultaneously complicated and simple.
There is something fishy about a museum with an oxymoron
in its title. Yet to be perfectly honest, I never even considered
this a problem because in my mind the term "museum"
eclipsed any notion to question the words that followed. I
assumed that there must be a special use of the term "Jurassic"
which was unfamiliar to me, a use that allowed it to be appropriately
paired with the term "technology." This tendency
to ignore one's personal reasoning in favor of a greater authority
is only partly a result of the respect we attribute to museums
in general; it is even more a result of years of academic
conditioning to accept that information offered from an acknowledged
authority must be true, significant, reasonable, and, in some
way, good for us. Everything in the museum seems designed
to make us feel uncomfortable with this trust.
At the entrance, there is a short video which introduces
the visitor to the museum's mission, a mission placed within
a historical context. On closer inspection, the video contains
oblique expressions and historical inaccuracies; however because
its style and narration has a "measured voice of unassailable
institutional authority," as Weschler put it, and because
there are truths mixed with the fiction, the video seems reasonable
enough on first examination:
The Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles, California,
is an educational institution dedicated to the advancement
of knowledge and the public appreciation of the Lower Jurassic.
Like a coat of two colors, the museum serves dual functions.
On the one hand, the museum provides the academic community
with a specialized repository of relics and artifacts from
the Lower Jurassic, with an emphasis on those that demonstrate
unusual or curious technological qualities. On the other
hand, the museum serves the general public by providing
the visitor a hands-on experience of "life in the Jurassic."
The first thing that struck me was the strange use of the
phrase "the Lower Jurassic." However, the claim
that the museum serves the academic community led me to believe
that there must be a new use of the phrase with which I was
unfamiliar. I figured that if it were simply an error, someone
long before would have informed the curator that he was confusing
a term that describes an ancient time period for one that
depicts a modern area.
My inclination to trust was furthered by the second mission,
to provide a "hands on experience" for the general
public, which assured me that the museum was designed with
models of effective learning in mind. The video goes on to
describe the museum's place in the history of other such institutions,
including what it claims to be the first natural history museum,
Noah's Ark. This mixture of truth and legend is preparation
for what lies in the main collection.
The first exhibits one encounters after leaving the video
room are a series of dioramas which focus on the life and
theories of Geoffery Sonnabend. Don't bother looking him up,
or you will end up just as frustrated as Weschler, who, after
his first visit, looked for references to Sonnabend in several
library databases, publishing houses and historical societies
before realizing that he was chasing a phantom.
Like Weschler, I fully believed that Sonnabend was a real
person, partly because of the vast amount of details about
his life and theories and partly because next to the dioramas
of him is one of Marcel Proust tasting the tea soaked madeleine
that invokes the memories of his childhood. My fondness for
Proust increased my desire to learn about this more obscure
theorist who also seemed to be interested in the nature of
After looking through several dioramas which focus on a series
of unremarkable events from Sonnabend's life, I finally got
to the one that deals with his theory of memory, the gist
of which is:
All living things have a Cone of Obliscence by which the
being experiences experience. This cone is sometimes also
known as the Cone of True Memory (and occasionally the Characteristic
Cone). Sonnabend speaks of this cone as if it were an organ
like the pancreas or spleen and like these organs its shape
and characteristics are unique to the individual and remain
relatively consistent over time. This cone (occasionally
referred to as a horn) is composed of two elements--the
Atmonic Disc (or base of the cone) which Sonnabend described
as "the field of immediate consciousness of an individual"
and the hollows (or interior of the cone). A third implied
element of the Characteristic Cone is the Spelean Axis,
an imaginary line which passes through the cone and the
center of the Atmonic Disc.
Neither the explanation nor the equally obscure model that
accompany it make any sense; however, both echo the rhetoric
of academic discourse so well that I convinced myself that
my confusion came from my inability to grasp the theory and
not from the theory itself. In giving some of the parts different
names, it seemed as if many other theorists had arrived at
similar conclusions but quibbled with Sonnabend over terminology,
and by using complex sounding terms with both certainty and
consistency, I was inspired to trust those who were smart
enough to invent and use this jargon. However, despite its
impressive look, when summarized and translated into common
usage, the whole theory boils down to an obvious point: events
that effect us deeply are more likely to be remembered than
those that are everyday occurrences.
Perhaps if the theory were written out and I had more time
to consider it, I might have arrived at this conclusion. However,
the recording speeds past with no accompanying text except
for the above model. This results in an effort of silent desperation
to make sense of the whole thing, an effort which for me went
something like this: Cone of Obliscence? I don't know this
term but it sounds like it's related to "obsolescence,"
so I assume it has to do with memories we no longer need and
discard into a what? Spelean Axis! This is completely unfamiliar,
but maybe it only intersects the cone at an angle because
most experiences are not kept with us as memories; perhaps
that is why he calls this part "the Hollows" since
these particular experiences do not have a lot of substance.
Though the exhibit did nothing to enlighten my understanding
of the nature of memory as a concept, it did inspire a few
memories from my early undergraduate days when I would sit
in lecture halls and listen to a professor pontificate through
jargon, graphs, models and theories which I did not understand
but which I assumed made sense to those who were smart enough
to use them.
That I began to recall these classroom experiences was quite
appropriate, for, as I discovered later, the whole Sonnabend
spiel began in lecture form prior to the museum's establishment
when its eventual founder and curator, David Wilson, was explaining
these "theories" to high school and university students
in the Los Angeles area. One of these lectures was attended
by art critic, Ralph Rugoff, who describes a classroom scene
Everybody there was taking notes furiously, as if this
were all on the level and was likely to be on the test - the
Falls, the cones, the planes, the whole thing, It was amazing.
And at one point I leaned over to Diana [David Wilson's
wife] and whispered, "This is the most incredible piece
of performance art I have ever seen." And she replied,
"What makes you think it's performance? David believes
all this stuff."
Wilson's belief not withstanding, I know that many would
consider it outrageous that he is passing off lies as truth
in front of students who don't know any better. I wonder,
however, if the content of most lectures today will seem equally
outrageous in a few years to come. Consider that a student
in the early 1950s could come out of a day at school believing
that a person will never walk on the moon, that Columbus discovered
America, and that the meaning of a literary text can be discovered
through codes which are completely contained within the piece
itself. Isn't it arrogant to believe that much of what currently
gets taught won't seem just as ridiculous in the not too distant
Wilson sees his museum as a filter through which layers of
explanations become obscured, allowing us to acknowledge the
mysterious nature of the subjects they attempt to explain.
He states, "Certain aspects of this museum you can peel
away very easily, but the reality behind, once you peel away
those relatively easy layers, is more amazing still than anything
those initial layers purport to be."
In short, a large part of the Museum's purpose is to inspire
the kind of confusion that leads to a healthy skepticism of
institutional truths. For it's only when people question established
knowledge that new ways of seeing the world can come into
existence, or as Lao Tzu put it in the Tao Te Ching,
"from wonder into wonder experience opens."
From Randy Fallows