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?

Doing American History Wrong: How I Won at Independence Hall

I recently had the opportunity to travel to Philadelphia. Everyone else was hot and bothered to see the birthplace of American democracy. I was excited to see the science museums: The Franklin Institute, The Academy of Natural Science, The Mutter and Independence Hall. (You read right on that last one.  Keep going…)

Next month, April 29 to be exact, we are opening a Wunderkabinet – a Cabinet of Curiosities. Our curiosities will be styled after those of Ferrante Imperato, an Italian apothecary who created, arguably, the most famous cabinet of curiosity in the world. But today you’ll be learning about Charles Wilson Peale’s cabinet of curiosities. Because he is super awesome.

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I’m not going to go into his backstory here, because it’s just too long, bizarre, and interesting on its own. I’m not going to talk about how he organized the first U.S. Scientific expedition in 1801 or how he went a-courting at the age of 88 or how they had to shoot the bear because it kept eating the rest of his collection. I will save that for another blog. (Honestly, it will probably be a couple of blog entries because I think Peale is super dreamy). Instead, today we are talking about Peale’s “Repository for Natural Curiosities,” his Philadelphia Museum.

I started my Peale sightings that day in Philadelphia at his grave, and all day long virtually every person I asked was very confused about why I cared about Peale, or they had no clue who he was. Half my morning was spent extolling the virtues of this wonderful American painter, scientist, statesman, entrepreneur and patriot. It was at the point when I had a crossing guard helping me look for a historical marker that I realized I had reached new heights of nerddom. Oh Peale, you make my heart flutter. 

Here’s the short(est possible) version of this tale. In 1786, Peale opened America’s first natural science museum to the public. It was known as the Philadelphia Museum, or colloquially as “Peale’s American Museum,” and was similar to that of Ferrante Imperato, in spirit. Peale was inquisitive himself and eager to instill that quality in others. Peale designed his museum to inspire a curiosity of the natural world and educate patrons about the diversity of life.

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So what does all this have to do with Independence Hall? Peale’s Museum started out as a small collection of portraits that he called “The Gallery of Great Men.” This gallery contained portraits of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Benjamin Franklin and many others, but it grew to include specimens when he had the opportunity to sketch a collection of mammoth bones. The bones drew a crowd and Peale recognized an opportunity when he saw one. He began collecting specimens and added them to his portrait gallery.

Over the years, as he grew out of one space, he’d move to another. This led him to rent spaces in two very prominent buildings in Philadelphia. The first place you might know is a small building next to Independence Hall, where he rented a small gallery. This is the current location of the American Philosophical Society, which Benjamin Franklin founded and of which Peale was a member. The second was the Pennsylvania State House, more commonly known now by its nickname, “Independence Hall.” It was officially named the Philadelphia Museum, but referred to as “Peale’s Museum.”

Peale created the first scientifically-organized museum of natural history in America. Museums didn’t really exist in Peale’s time and those that did weren’t public. Peale’s museum was open to anyone with a sense of wonder and 25 cents. The “Great School of Nature” is what Peale called it. Although you may not know his name, Peale was a peer of America’s greatest men. Franklin regularly corresponded with Peale and donated to Peale the corpse of his French angora cat to be put on display. Washington contributed a pair of golden pheasants. After the Lewis and Clark expedition, President Jefferson, a close friend of Peale’s, arranged for specimens to go to Peale.  

When I arrived at Independence Hall that morning, I was warmly received by Jane, a National Park Ranger, who assured me that I wasn’t doing American history wrong. I was apparently the only person ever to forgo the tour of the room in which the Declaration of Independence was signed in favor of seeing the rooms in which Peale housed his museum. 

Peale’s collection housed both local species, that the entire Peale family collected, as well as exotic items from abroad. Sea captains brought him a llama, an antelope, an ape, and monkeys — all kept outside until they died and were then preserved. The family also had a bald eagle who imprinted on Peale and lived atop Independence Hall.
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One of Peale’s biggest struggles was discovering the secret to preserving these specimens when they died. After much experimentation, he settled on an arsenic solution for the birds and smaller animals and bichloride of mercury for the larger specimens. It worked, but was extremely toxic. Peale believed the purpose of his museum was “to bring into view a world in miniature.” To do this, Peale used his artistic abilities to make the displays visually appealing. It was not just a bird in a case; his displays included painted landscapes with real branches and rocks. Peale’s innovative habitats would become the standard for museum practices in modern museums.  

In 1791, shortly after the death of his first wife, Peale found a new wife in a group who had come to visit the museum and a few weeks later they married. She inherited six boisterous children (by the day’s standard), a menagerie of wild animals and constant visitors to the museum. The kitchen, usually considered the woman’s domain at the time, doubled as a laboratory and taxidermy shop. The Peale family unanimously loved her. 

Peale accepted an offer from American Philosophical Society in 1794 to move the museum and his family into the Philosophical Hall. At this time, he switched his focus more wholly to science over art. Peale was the first to use Linnaean taxonomy in organizing a collection, whereas other Museums just presented a Wunderkabinet — a smattering of specimens. Also in 1794, he had a little boy whom he named Charles Linnaeus. In 1795, another son arrived and it was the members of the Philosophical Society that named him Franklin, by a majority vote, after their founder who died in 1790. 

In 1802, Peale asked Thomas Jefferson to establish a national museum 50 years before the inception of the Smithsonian. Jefferson agreed that this was an excellent idea, but couldn’t agree to give public government funds for the project. So Peale asked the Pennsylvania State Legislature to support his ever-growing collection. They agreed to let him use the upper floors of the main building, the tower and first floor east room in the Pennsylvania State House, now Independence Hall, except on Election Day, when they would need to let people come in to vote. 

When the new and improved museum opened to the public, it contained 4,000 insects, a large mineral collection, a grizzly bear, a buffalo, a hyena, an antelope and a llama. It also contained a lens focused in on the venom groove in a snake’s fangs and artifacts from Native American tribes, Polynesia and the Far East. It also housed machines, antiques, inventions and copies of famous statues. To liven things up, the Peale family also did live snake handling demonstrations and procured an organ for evening recitals.

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Floor plan from Peale’s museum.

The first three people to have a membership to the museum were George Washington, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson — the acting President, Vice President and Secretary of State for the newly-formed United States of America. In fact, George Washington headed the annual membership drive. 

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Ticket to Peale’s museum.

At the age of 81 and at the request of the museum’s board, Peale painted one of his most well-known pieces of art, “The Artist and his Museum,” which is an amazing peek into the last version of Peale’s American Museum.

During his life, Peale never saw the establishment of a National History Museum and 20 years after his death, his collection was dispersed. Some of the scientific specimens were sold to P. T. Barnum and some were destroyed by a fire. “The Gallery of Great Men” was bought in bulk by the City of Philadelphia and is now on display in the Independence Hall National Historic Park Collection — just as Peale wished.

image6 Author’s Note: A big thank you to Park Ranger Jane who provided me with some pretty useful information and was willing to tolerate my unbridled enthusiasm!

 

La Virgen de Guadalupe appears in Houston this weekend in a spectacular new exhibition

Quilts. Statues. Blankets. Street art. Devotional candles. Tattoos. In the Americas, you can find the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe almost anywhere, in any form. Her image represents not only a great miracle but the identity of a nation of believers. And this weekend you can trace the story back to its origins—only at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. La Virgen de Guadalupe: Empress of the Americas opens this Friday, Dec. 11.

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La Virgen de Guadalupe, also known as La Virgen Morena, appears in this 17th-century painting.

In collaboration with the Basilíca de Guadalupe, the limited engagement exhibit features the iconic image of the Virgin in its many forms. Her fascinating history begins in 8th-century Spain and ends in modern North and South America. In between is a complex story of deep faith, conquest and conversion.

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A screen opens the exhibit and tells the story of the Spanish conquest of the Aztec empire through its panels.

According to deeply held beliefs, La Virgen de Guadalupe, also called La Virgen Morena to some, appeared to Juan Diego in 1531 near the hill of Tepayac outside the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán. Juan Diego, an indigenous Catholic, fought to convince the bishop of what he’d seen, sharing a message from the Virgin to build a church where she had made her appearance. Juan Diego was met with doubt until he brought back roses growing out of season at the top of the hill, carrying them wrapped in his tilma, or cloak. When he poured the flowers from his tilma at the feet of the bishop, the image of the Virgin was left behind in the fabric, providing proof of the miracle and convincing the bishop to have the church built.

Through the next four centuries, the popularity of the Virgin of Guadalupe pushed her beyond religious symbolism and into the culture of Mexico and the Americas. Today, she symbolizes New World Catholicism as well as peace, hope and comfort to her followers.

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After almost 500 years, the Virgin of Guadalupe still resonates in the Americas, captured as a cultural symbol in artistic expressions of devotion like these statues.

“Regardless of your personal take on this story, we invite visitors to the exhibition to consider the history and reality surrounding the apparition of the Virgin of Guadalupe,” said Dr. Dirk Van Tuerenhout, Curator of Anthropology at HMNS. 

The show features an authorized reproduction of the image of Virgin; the original manuscript of the Nican Mophua, an Aztec-language document that recounts the story of the apparition and part of the collections of the New York Public Library; an 18th-century painting of the Virgin said to have touched the original image in the Basílica in Mexico City; the Doctrina Christiana, one of the first books printed in Mexico dating back to 1553, on loan from the Benson Library at The University of Texas at Austin; and artistic expressions of contemporary devotion to the Virgin.

Information panels are printed in both English and Spanish, and an audio guide will be accessible by cell phone. Tickets on sale now.

A Symbol of Culture: Francs Guinéens Paint a Picture of Life in Guinea

by Kaylee Gund

During a recent visit to the Museum’s offsite collections storage, one carving in particular caught my eye — the Nimba (D’mba). After living in Guinea for over a year, I immediately honed in on the familiar polished wood of the Nimba among the other West African pieces.

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The Nimba.

The Nimba is a symbol of feminine power and fertility, carried on someone’s shoulders around the fields to ensure a bountiful harvest. It wasn’t one of the traditions in the region where I lived, but I still saw the Nimba almost every day in my village on the corner of the 5,000 FG (franc guinéen) note.

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The Nimba appears on the corner of a 5,000 FG note.

Among many other traditional symbols, the Nimba has become an expression of national pride, as evidenced by the Guinean bank’s use of it on currency and as its logo. Guinean currency is an interesting mix of national and local identity. Each denomination represents a different culturally distinct region of the country, showing important symbols and economic activities for that region.

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A gold mining operation appears on the back of a 500 FG note, paying homage to the major source of income for the Siguiri prefecture.

Haute Guinée, the eastern plateau, is featured on the 500 FG, complete with an image of gold mining on the back. A major source of income for the Siguiri prefecture, gold mining was also an occasional source of exasperation for schoolteachers, as our students would often leave for months at a time during a gold rush and “cherchent l’or,” or “search for gold.”

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As you’ve probably noticed, the number of zeros behind monetary amounts in Guinea can be a bit intimidating. Pictured above is a whopping 16,600 FG, worth a little over $2 in the U.S.

What can all this money buy?

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Bags of clean drinking water are sold for 500 FG each. Drinking water from the well is ill advised, so this is a worthwhile investment at $0.07.

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At the peak of mango season, everyone has more fruit than they know what to do with. It spoils fast with no refrigeration, so piles of mangoes are sold for 2,000 FG (less than $0.30).

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Prepared food, like this rice with potato leaf sauce, costs between 5,000 and 7,000 FG for a plate (around $1).

So many mundane things require money that it’s easy to forget what an incredible symbol it can be. Guinean currency gives a glimpse into the many traditions of its different regions, and while there is occasionally ethnic strife between groups and the road to democracy is still rocky, the entire nation is unified in using Guinean francs.

Culture is an incredible thing, and we’re lucky enough to have access to a rich treasure trove of it: from Ancient Egypt to the Amazonian rainforest, even the smallest things can hold great significance.

Next time you’re about to spend a dollar, take a look at what’s on it. You might be surprised!

Editor’s Note: Kaylee Gund is in Youth Education Sales at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. During her time in the Peace Corps, Gund was placed in Guinea to teach chemistry in the country’s national language, French.