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.

IMG_6974

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!

IMG_7126

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.

IMG_7125

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.”

davidwilson

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.

IMG_7123

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.

IMG_0427

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?

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterPin on PinterestShare on Google+

Aperture and Amber: Our Amber Secrets Pixel Party Recap

After-hours at the Houston Museum of Natural Science on April 10, we hosted one of our exclusive Pixel Parties — where we open select exhibits just for photographers (both amateur and professional). This time around, we gave photographers access to the Morian Hall of Paleontology and Amber Secrets: Feathers from the Age of Dinosaurs. Here’s a small sampling of what they gave us in return:

Michael Palmer, https://www.flickr.com/photos/mikedaddy/25767535184/in/pool-hmns/

Michael Palmer

Michael-Palmer

Michael Palmer

Sergio Garcia Rill, http://sgarciarill.zenfolio.com/hmns_amber

Sergio Garcia Rill

Sandy Grimm, https://www.flickr.com/photos/sulla55/26345218786/in/pool-hmns/

Sandy Grimm

Dwayne Fortier, https://www.flickr.com/photos/fortier_photography/25778251933/in/pool-hmns/

Dwayne Fortier

Randall Pugh, https://www.flickr.com/photos/uffdah777/26086547700/in/pool-hmns/

Randall Pugh

Arie Moghaddam, https://www.flickr.com/photos/coogie/25774417994/in/pool-hmns/

Arie Moghaddam

Randall Pugh, https://www.flickr.com/photos/uffdah777/26293102051/in/pool-hmns/

Randall Pugh

Ivan Moreno, https://www.flickr.com/photos/37chess/26322021871/in/pool-hmns/

Ivan Moreno

Ivan Moreno, https://www.flickr.com/photos/37chess/25783405474/in/pool-hmns/

Ivan Moreno

Arie Moghaddam, https://www.flickr.com/photos/coogie/25774411244/in/pool-hmns/

Arie Moghaddam

Randall Pugh

sandy

sulla55

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterPin on PinterestShare on Google+

Because That’s How You Get Ants: Flooding Causes Displaced Critters to Run for Shelter, Too

Most of you probably didn’t make it in to work today, and after my short drive to the Houston Museum of Natural Science this morning, I would say that was a good call. There were plenty of cars stalled in intersections, and I watched a sixteen-wheeler make a U-turn on 288 because the water level was too high under an overpass.  

Expensive car repairs aren’t the only reason to stay home during the flash floods we periodically experience. When the water rises, it carries with it everything that is buoyant.  This could be trash that was thrown out a car window, chemicals that spilled from a car during an accident or were poured down the drain, or the critters that live under the soil and in the bushes.

Nicole1

One of the most awesome and horrifying things you will hopefully never see during a flash flood is a raft of fire ants. These little guys instinctively know how to survive the catastrophic destruction of their home. They are light enough to float individually, but they stick together. This allows the ants at the base to hold up those above the water for a while. The roiling ball of ants turns constantly to allow every member of the ball to get a rest and to get enough oxygen. The ants at the edge are constantly looking for something dry on which they can cling. The instant they find a tree or a street sign, up everyone goes.

This is also horrific because sometimes that thing is you.

ants1

The ants, which are pretty upset at this point, will absolutely swarm you if you touch this little ball of hate. They will get to the highest point they can and then they will latch on.  With their piercing mouth parts. 

So, my friends. While I applaud an interest in the out-of-doors and making new friends, please wait until the city isn’t flooded to engage in both. Because sometimes you pick your friends…

ants3

…and sometimes they pick you!

Nicole4

Editor’s Note: Learn more about the behavior of ants and other insects at the Brown Hall of Entomology in the Cockrell Butterfly Center. (When the floodwaters recede, of course.)

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterPin on PinterestShare on Google+

Mark Your Calendars for these events happening at HMNS 4/18-4/24

Last week’s featured #HMNSBlockParty creation is by Fritz (age: 12):

block party 18

Want to get your engineering handwork featured? Drop by our Block Party interactive play area and try your own hand building a gravity-defying masterpiece. Tag your photos with #HMNSBlockParty.

Lecture – Creation of the World, Ancient Egyptian Creation Myths by Regine Schulz
Monday, April 18
2:30 p.m.
The ancient Egyptian religious system was one of the most successful and longest-lasting in antiquity. The success was based on a staggering of the ancient openness and adaptability of the system that could respond flexibly to problems, changing needs or new insights. Therefore, divergent conceptions and ritual traditions were combined without compromising the underlying ideas and structures. From today’s perspective, the explanatory models of the ancient Egyptians dealing with questions about the origin and preservation of the world reveals an almost modern acting cognitive interest and a very rational use of the time of the facts available. Their pursuit of authentic metaphysical truths has been therefore never far from reality, but very closely linked to the observation and analysis of their environment. Here, they were concerned with the determination of the laws and the expected, resulting effectiveness of their actions on a practical and ritual level. The lecture will introduce to the main ontological question and answers of ancient Egyptian theologists.

Lecture – The McFerrin Fabergé Collection: A Collector’s Tale by Dorothy McFerrin
Monday, April 18
6:30 p.m.
Providing an insider’s perspective on collecting priceless gemstone pieces, collector Dorothy McFerrin will share entertaining tales of the acquisitions for the McFerrin Fabergé Collection, one of the largest collections of Fabergé in the world. From the time it was created in Imperial Russia to arriving in Houston in recent years, every priceless piece has a special history. 
This program is cosponsored by Rice University’s Glasscock School of Continuing Studies

Class – Amber Workshop
Tuesday, April 19
6:00 p.m.
Join paleontologist David Temple for an examination of these amazing natural time capsules. This amber workshop includes time in the Amber Secrets, Feathers from the Age of Dinosaurs exhibition, Morian Hall of Paleontology, and in the classroom where you will polish a piece of raw amber that will be yours to keep.

Cultural Feast – Amazonian Culinary Adventure
Wednesday, April 20
7:00 p.m.
During the 16th century, Spanish and Portuguese explorers searching for gold and other valuable commodities in the Amazon often suffered from food shortages. They had little or no interest in the exotic flora on which the native population thrived. With more scientific exploration by scholars beginning in the 18th century, the value of many of the native Amazonian plants and trees was soon recognized, as reflected in their impact on industry, medicine and cuisine. Chef David Cordúa will create innovative dishes featuring ingredients native to the Amazon, while culinary historian Merrianne Timko places the edible Amazon in historical context.

Class – Life in the Permian and Mesozoic: Dinosaurs, their Kin and Contemporaries
Saturday, April 23
9:00 a.m.
Go behind-the-scenes in the Museum’s staff training lab where hundreds of specimens are uniquely presented in a hands-on road maps. With a particular focus on individual species not seen in many museums, this course will focus solely on the dinosaurs and the reptiles that preceded them and how the formation and break up of Pangaea affected dinosaur evolution. A first in this series of classes, we will look at the geologic conditions of the late Paleozoic and Mesozoic starting from the Early Permian to the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous. This workshop includes time in the Hall of Paleontology. The instructor is geologist and paleontologist James Washington, HMNS staff trainer. Class size is limited.

Class – Cenozoic, the Age of Mammals: Life after Dinosaurs
Saturday, April 23
1:00 p.m.
A trip to zoos, parks and your backyard will never be the same!
Go behind-the-scenes in the Museum’s staff training lab where hundreds of specimens are uniquely presented in a hands-on road maps. This course will focus on the evolution of mammals from the moment the non-avian dinosaurs went extinct. With a forty foot hand drawn phylogenetic (family) tree created by the teacher and over one hundred models; you will review each of the major mammal groups in the fossil record and their relationship to species living today. This workshop includes time in the Hall of Paleontology, Hall of African Wildlife, and Hall of Texas Wildlife. The instructor is geologist and paleontologist James Washington, HMNS staff trainer. Class size is limited.

 

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterPin on PinterestShare on Google+