Where Fact and Fiction Meet: LA’s Museum of Jurassic Technology and the Cabinet of Curiosities

I have two lives. At the Houston Museum of Natural Science, I’m a science blogger, but in my art life, I’m an aspiring novelist. Occasionally, I have the privilege of embarking on a literary pilgrimage to a city I’ve never been to, in the most recent case, Los Angeles, where I attended the AWP writer’s conference and met up with other writing friends from all over the U.S. I never expected my divergent lives of fact and fiction would meet, but in LA, they certainly did. Imagine a place chock-full of mind-blowing artifacts, not unlike HMNS, except as you move through the exhibits, you’re unsure of what’s real and what’s fake. That place is The Museum of Jurassic Technology.

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Four of my friends, all writers, lined up for a Wes Anderson-style photo outside The Museum of Jurassic Technology in downtown Los Angeles. I’m behind the camera. The museum prohibits cell phones and photographs inside. From left, H. Tucker Rosebrock, Stephanie Rizzo, Breana Steele and Ben Hahn.

From the title alone, you know something’s a little off about this place, tucked into a re-purposed building along Venice Boulevard in the Palms District (aka Culver City). The museum’s double-edged mission is straightforward — it is, by its own definition, “an educational institution dedicated to the advancement of knowledge and the public appreciation of the Lower Jurassic.” Okay, but the Jurassic was an age of toothy theropods and bus-sized reptiles, of Allosaurus pitted against Stegosaurus, so what possible technology are we talking about — time travel?

But even the idea of jumping back to a different era doesn’t do the collection justice. This place is a collection of artifacts straight out of folklore, there before your very eyes: a display of a hairy horn collected from a human woman, an exhibit about bats that emit X-rays and fly through walls, and a history of trailer homes in which the dioramas match nothing in recent memory. This isn’t a journey back in time; it’s a trip to a parallel universe.

As you walk through the spaces and corridors, dimly lit like HMNS, and read about the artifacts on their text-heavy plaques, you begin to believe and doubt all at once. The language is scientific, dry and authoritative, but some of the texts and displays are far too outlandish to be of this reality. Yet seeing is believing, and many objects are in fact authentic. Take for example, the taxidermied bust of an American grey fox (Urocyon cinereoargenteus), built into a display that includes a recording of its “voice.” It’s obvious when you hear the accompanying track that it’s simply a recording of a man barking and snarling in falsetto, and the exhibit hints at this unreality. When viewed at the right angle, a tiny three-dimensional hologram of a person, the kind you’ll find in the Wiess Energy Hall displays, appears “inside” the fox’s head. The fox is real, as is its taxonomy, but everything about its voice is faked!

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This monograph on the MJT by Lawrence Weschler provides a look inside the mind of David Wilson, the MacArthur fellow who invented the museum.

As you continue moving through the museum, you notice snippets of reality, but the inventions begin to wear on you, as well. You’ll read something you can recall from a historical text you read at the library or that article you pulled up on the internet the other day, and recognize it as information, but as the explanation continues, you reach a point where the reality you knew doesn’t exist anymore, and you are beset with an assured feeling that, “Wait… This can’t be right.”

The accomplishment of this museum, the brainchild of MacArthur fellow David Hildebrand Wilson, is to offer an experience that examines the way museums work in the mind. The language on display cases, that authoritative tone coupled with heaps of factoids, seduces the viewer to trust what is written. Vetted institutions like HMNS have earned the trust of our guests by working with scientists who provide verifiable data to back up our information, but it wasn’t always so. At its most basic, any museum is a carefully-designed walk through a maze of scientific facts, a sort of science journal using objects. In many respects, touring the HMNS is the same as reading a book on natural science, but here you see the science with your own eyes. You come in a student and leave enlightened, as long as you trust what you see, hear and read.

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The catalogue published by the MJTs Board of Trustees by a fictional press, “The Society for the Diffusion of Useful Information.”

From this perspective, the MJT is roughly the same as reading a book of a slightly different history from our own, an unconventional novel of objects that exists in the minds of the artists involved and the guests who experience the museum. You go in expecting to learn something new, and you do, but not about science. Instead, you learn about storytelling, the absorption of information and the power of the human imagination. You learn how much you trust what you read in a museum, and why shouldn’t you? Modern museums work to maintain a paragon of proven science. Yet it’s a haunting feeling to be “led always from familiar objects toward the unfamiliar; guided along, as it were, a chain of flowers into the mysteries of life,” one of the pet quotes of the MJT. Like reading a novel, you begin with a kernel of truth, but that truth is quickly muddied with layer upon layer of invention.

Excited to learn as much as I could about this strange place, I made contact with Wilson himself, who agreed to an interview to unpack the theories that make his museum possible. Inspired by the ethos of the German documentarian Werner Herzog, whose prolific filmmaking career began in the 1960s, Wilson built the MJT with a similar affect in mind, something Herzog calls “the ecstatic truth.”

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Publicity photo of David H. Wilson, founder of the MJT.

“There is a truth that exists that is beyond a three-dimensional truth, a more complex truth that is verifiability,” Wilson said. ” … Ecstatic truth is the truth of the imagination. Making too hard a distinction between that kind of truth and what oftentimes passes for truth is maybe not the most productive effort for the (human) species. The merging of these things is enormously valuable.”

Wilson’s collaborators, the employees of the museum who contribute their own work to the collection (and incidentally don’t consider themselves artists), are disinterested in making the distinction between what is “true” and what is “false.” Instead, they are “drawn to kinds of knowledge that are essentially on the periphery of believability,” he said.

“The verifiability of the material presented in the exhibits, while it’s a perfectly legitimate approach (to understanding the work), is something that we at the museum literally never talk about,” Wilson said.

When the audience begins to loosen its grip on the importance of distinguishing fact from fiction, true imagination can take place, which is different for every individual. There’s an understanding reached that loosely involves history, but emphasizes creating an unsettling feeling of the kind of wonder you had back when you were a child.

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Quote pulled from the MJT collection catalogue.

“The thing we find is that we’re only doing the first part of the work, and the observer, the patron of the museum, is really doing an enormous amount of work. They take things that we put into the world, and in their minds essentially ‘create’ them,” Wilson said. “Like a Rorschach test, almost all the work we do, not by intention or design, seems open to multiple interpretations or ways of approaching it.”

The museum owes its look and feel to the era of the cabinet of curiosities, a cultural phenomenon with origins in the Renaissance that developed into the modern museum. Instead of art or books, collectors would assemble a host of objects that bore scientific or historical merit, and share with guests their discoveries, some of which were faked. One can imagine a layer of doubt blanketing the crowd, depending on how involved the explanation of the object and how far from the truth the curator wandered.

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A replica narwhal tusk was the inspiration of some silliness for me as HMNS Marketing toured the cabinet collection last month.

At HMNS, we’re opening our own Cabinet of Curiosities Friday, April 29 in an homage to this era. Guests will be allowed to touch and manipulate the objects featured in the collection to learn both about natural science and the origins of the contemporary museum, and to feel the surge of inspiration and wonder the experience offers.

Next time you wander the halls of HMNS, and when you visit the Cabinet of Curiosities exhibit, remember there was once a time when dubious information was readily accepted — a magical epoch in which the human imagination was the sole tool in understanding our world and place in the universe. Then ask yourself the question, is that time now?

Families First: HMNS Expands Accessibility to Accommodate Autism Spectrum Disorders

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Families come in many shapes, many sizes and many kinds. We at the Houston Museum of Natural Science are always looking for ways to make our halls and collections more accessible to families of every background. That’s why we’re excited to announce our new resources for families of children with sensory sensitivities and autism spectrum disorders.

Over the past few months, we’ve been working with educators, families and professionals to develop resources that will make your family’s visit to HMNS more enjoyable. These resources can be used as pre-visit tools to plan your trip to the museum as well as during your visit to make navigating the exhibit halls easier. Take a look at what we’ve prepared for you below!

Visual Vocabulary

Use our Visual Vocabulary Cards to make visiting new spaces and transitioning between museum halls easier. You can also use these cards to create a visual schedule of your day at HMNS!

Sensory Map

Our Sensory Map provides you with information about what sensory stimuli your child can expect in each exhibit, including noise levels, visual stimulation and tactile components. Use this guide to plan your visit and decide which exhibit halls are appropriate for your family. You can also use this map to ensure your transitions and pathways between museum halls are appropriate for your child’s sensory needs.

HMNS Exploration Planner

Visit HMNS before you walk through the doors! Use our Exploration Planner to let your child know what to expect during your day at the museum, from waiting in line at the box office to exploring our many exhibit halls. Let Dipsy the Diplodocus give you helpful tips on what to look for along the way!Access2

Laminated copies of these resources will be available for you to check out at Museum Services, just inside the main exhibit hall entrance. You are welcome to use these copies, or feel free to bring your own printed versions!

Make sure to check out our Accessibility page for more helpful tips, like what days and times are the quietest or where you can easily park for your visit. We are committed to making this experience as easy as possible for you and your family.

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Accessibility is a cause near and dear to our hearts. The three of us are educators and work with kids of all kinds every day, and our goal is to make HMNS an open and welcoming environment for literally everyone.

We hope you’ll take advantage of these resources during your next visit to HMNS. Your family will be a great addition to our family.

If you have any questions, concerns or feedback regarding accessibility, please feel free to contact us.

Legacy Donors Help Fund the Future of HMNS

You explored the solar system. You had butterflies land on your shoulder. You were dazzled by the beauty of the best gems and minerals from around the world. You climbed mountains and swam in the ocean depths. You celebrated your grandson’s sixth birthday with the dinosaurs and inspired fourth-graders to like science. You’ve grown alongside the Houston Museum of Natural Science, and now you’re wondering how to help HMNS keep growing.

DSC05484If the museum has enriched your life, you may wish to consider a planned gift to create a legacy that will help secure its future. The museum depends on the generosity of its biggest fans to provide high-quality exhibitions and programs that keep pace with technology and scientific discovery. What better way to thank the museum than to donate a lasting gift through the Legacy Society like members Eleanor and Chuck Asaud? 

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Valued volunteers for the past 14 years, the Asauds share their considerable knowledge, experience and enthusiasm with the museum’s visitors on a regular basis and decided to deepen their commitment by generously including the museum in their estate planning.

“The museum is an important and rewarding chapter in our lives. We have made friends here, continued to learn and take part in meaningful work,” said Chuck. “The fact that we are able to work together at the museum is a nice benefit,” said Eleanor.

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Chuck and Eleanor met at college in 1954 and have been partners in life since that time, raising three children and enjoying fulfilling careers. Eleanor spent 30 years as an elementary and preschool teacher, giving youngsters a solid and caring foundation for future learning. Chuck, a dedicated scientist, made significant contributions in the aerospace and energy industries as a metallurgist, developing special products and exotic materials. Much of his work was highly classified.

Retirement brought Chuck and Eleanor to HMNS where they give freely of their time. Both are Master Docents and like to volunteer in the Cockrell Butterfly Center and the Morian Hall of Paleontology. “We enjoy learning new things, and working with the curators and other volunteers,” said Eleanor. They are also regular volunteers at fundraising events where they greet guests and make everyone feel welcome.

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Like most important aspects in the Asauds’ life, the decision to join the HMNS Legacy Society was a joint one. “We decided that there was no longer a need for me to be named as beneficiary in Chuck’s life insurance policy; I really don’t need it,” said Eleanor. “We know that the museum will put it to good use and that makes us happy,” said Chuck.

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Planned gifts can include bequests, retirement assets, life insurance policies, artifacts or the establishment of a charitable trust with the museum. Individuals who make these donations are eligible to join the HMNS Legacy Society and receive invitations to exclusive events, recognition in selected publications and are honored at our annual luncheon.

The process to sign up as a Legacy donor is simple and confidential. Once you’ve discussed your estate with your attorney or financial planner, visit our web site to sign up to donate.

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You’ve lived a lifetime with the museum. Help secure its future for generations to come. Join the Legacy Society today.

Exploring the Natural Sciences with Blocks: It Can Be Done!

Nothing inspires both children and adults quite the way a museum does. A close second is the inspiration that both the young and old find playing and experimenting with various kinds of toys that encourage building and construction.

Exploration of the natural sciences and imaginative construction play are a natural fit. The museum’s new exhibit Block Party provides a unique opportunity for families to first explore the natural sciences in the museum’s exhibit halls and then to experience hands-on creative exploration as they get up to their elbows in interlocking bricks that can be used to build anything imaginable!

It’s well-established that block or building play are ideal avenues to develop fine motor skills, hand-eye coordination, capacity for divergent thinking, collaborative skills, and spatial thinking in children. In addition, there’s evidence connecting complex block play and construction toys with advanced math skills in later life. Building play is also beneficial for the brains of tweens and adolescents, and don’t be fooled, they still love to build and play. Recent studies link construction play with superior performance on tests of spatial skills and mathematics for older children.

Structured block play is a term used when a child attempts to recreate a construction by consulting a model or blueprint. This kind of block play calls on a specific skill set that is crucial for many complex tasks. Why not take advantage of the various opportunities available at the museum to collect inspiration for structured block play?

In order for your child to build a recreation of something they observed in the museum, they have to analyze what they saw, perceive the parts that made up the whole, and figure out how the parts relate to one another. Here are some great ideas to get you started. Visit the exhibits and then visit Block Party to build and explore. Please share the great ideas you and your children come up with, and don’t forget to submit your creation to our weekly contest!

Cullen Hall of Gems and Minerals

Discover the beautiful gems and minerals and then recreate the geometric structure of minerals using interlocking blocks.

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John P. McGovern Hall of the Americas

Explore models of Maya and Aztec temples and pyramids and then construct your own.

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Morian Hall of Paleontology

Discover all manner of prehistoric fossils and then reconstruct models of biped and quadruped dinosaurs to experiment with balance.

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Welch Hall of Chemistry

Visit the periodic table of elements in the chemistry hall and then model different molecules.

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Cockrell Butterfly Center

Visit the butterflies and observe the amazing symmetry of their wings, then build a symmetrical model of your own using blocks.

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Burke Baker Planetarium

See Robot Explorers in the Planetarium and then create your own model robot to explore other worlds.

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Wortham Giant Screen Theatre

Watch Journey to Space 3D on the big screen and then design a space ship to send to Mars.

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Wiess Energy Hall

Journey through the energy hall and then construct an innovative model drilling platform or solar energy farm.

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Strake Hall of Malacology and Hamman Hall of Texas Coastal Ecology

Discover the amazing world of coastal ecology and mollusks. Then, design and build a model of an artificial reef to be used in conservation efforts.

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Farish Hall of Texas Wildlife and the Frensley/Graham Hall of African Wildlife

Observe the different dioramas and then construct your own museum display using building blocks.

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Have a great time building your relationship with your child by building with blocks! Our brand-new Block Party interactive play area is designed to inspire the imaginations of all ages. Construction has begun and the excitement is building!