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?

HMNS Unveils Ground-breaking Discovery: Soft Tissue from the Dinosaur Age!

Well, the news is out, and here’s the scoop. The Houston Museum of Natural Science is involved in the next great discovery in the world of paleontology. In the forests of Myanmar, scientists have unearthed several pieces of 99-million-year-old amber that contain some of the best-preserved prehistoric lizards ever found. These little creatures walked alongside Tyrannosaurus rex, but encased in fossilized tree resin, they seem perhaps days old. The skin and soft tissues, the color of their scales and even their tongues have all survived millions of years of geologic time.

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HMNS unveiled these specimens the morning of Wednesday, March 30, as part of our newest exhibit, Amber Secrets: Feathers from the Age of Dinosaurs. This announcement follows a social media buzz created by a paper published in Science Advances, written by Dr. Juan D. Daza of Sam Houston State University and co-authored by Dr. David Grimaldi of the American Museum of Natural History, curator of the Amber Secrets exhibit. The paper outlines the significance of this incredible discovery, crucial to a deeper understanding of the ecosystems of the mid-Cretaceous.

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Unlike most fossils important to paleontology that amount to little more than mineralized skeletons, these lizard specimens, measuring a half-inch to almost two and a half inches, offer tissue samples allowing scientists to get an intimate look at these extinct reptiles down to the cellular level. Using CT scanners and 3D printers, paleontologists can zoom in and reconstruct these specimens in high detail, creating fully articulated copies of these ancient animals for research.

The favorite of the collection is an ancestor of the modern chameleon. A curling tail and features of its skull suggest it may have fed and moved similarly, but were it preserved in rock, these details would have been lost. Through the golden lens of amber, this lizard, like the others, looks out at us from across the expanse of time.

These lizards aren’t the only rock stars of this exquisite collection of Burmese amber, also called Burmite. The collection opened Feb. 19 showcasing more than 100 specimens containing feathers, invertebrates, fungi and flora preserved with incredible detail. Using modern technology, paleontologists are learning more about the ecosystems in this cross-section of time than ever before. These faithfully-preserved samples of ancient life allow us to peer across deep time and discover proof that feathered creatures lived alongside Tyrannosaurus rex and Triceratops, and evidence that could explain the development of the relationship between angiosperms and pollinators. The solutions to scientific puzzles like whether dinosaurs had feathers and the exact era in which plant life began to develop flowers could be contained inside these beautiful gold-glowing fossils.

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Don’t just read about these amazing discoveries online; come meet these time-travelers for yourself, and learn the secrets they have to tell in Amber Secrets: Feathers from the Age of Dinosaurs while there’s still time. Open now through March 26, 2017.

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!

 

Son of ‘Bridge of Spies’ pilot to deliver father’s story at HMNS Wednesday

When it comes to American espionage, few people are as close to the truth as Francis Gary Powers, Jr., and fewer have a story to tell as exciting as his father’s — one that inspired director Steven Spielberg to make a movie out of it. Bridge of Spies (2015) tells the declassified tale of New York lawyer James Donovan, who brokered the international prisoner exchange that brought home American U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers, Sr. The narrative lives on through Powers’s son, who will tell his own story of historical preservation Wednesday night at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

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May 1, 1960, during the height of the Cold War, Powers, Sr. was shot down over Russia during a spy mission to take photos of the ground from an altitude of 70,000 feet. Using specialized camera equipment, Powers’s plane gathered information on ground movements from 13.25 miles above the Earth’s surface, more than twice the cruising altitude of a commercial airliner.

Powers’s U-2 was damaged by an SA-2 anti-aircraft missile, which exploded near the tail section, breaking off a portion of the tail. The plane disintegrated as it fell through the atmosphere, tearing off both wings. According to his son, Powers never ejected but still survived the crash, and the middle of the aircraft remained nearly intact, leaving advanced technology available for Russian engineers to investigate.

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Francis Gary Powers, Sr., in the specialized pressure suit that allows U-2 pilots to survive at 70,000 feet.

Powers pulled himself from the wreckage and was later captured by the Russian military and detained in a Soviet prison for two years. In the media and history books, his capture and brokerage back to the United States became known as the U-2 Incident of May 1960.

At this point, Powers’s story grows muddled in rumor and conspiracy theory, which his son has passionately and patiently resisted for decades through his work with the public. Many Americans considered Powers as a traitor, believing he should have taken his own life to preserve U.S. secrets and that perhaps his return home meant military secrets had been exchanged.

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Powers, Sr. used this model to explain in legal hearings how the aircraft broke up as it fell to the ground.

“It’s never too late to set the record straight,” Powers, Jr. told the Houston Rotary Club at a special luncheon Tuesday, where he delivered his story as a guest speaker. He explained that the U-2 Incident happened when he was a child living in California, but he was old enough to understand his father’s POW status.

Later in life, after his father published his 1970 memoir, Operation Overflight: A Memoir of the U-2 Incident, Powers, Jr. became instrumental to the preservation of the U-2 Incident and Cold War espionage. His father died in a tragic news helicopter accident in 1977, and after many years of mourning, Powers, Jr. picked up the torch.

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With the help of John C. Welch, Powers, Jr. founded The Cold War Museum in 1996. Inspired by decades of research into declassified documents, his father’s memoir and personal experience, he first established the museum as a traveling collection with the preservation of truth in mind. Over the years, the museum traveled around the world to build interest in the creation of a permanent home, and in 2009, Powers, Jr. announced a physical address in Vint Hill, Va. He currently resides in Richmond.

For 15 years, Powers, Jr. pitched his father’s story to the film industry to further build interest in the museum, the memoir and the U-2 Incident. In July 2014, Steven Spielberg requested to option Powers’s book for Bridge of Spies, released last October. The movie stars Tom Hanks as Donovan.

Powers, Jr. will deliver a lecture Wednesday in the Wortham Giant Screen Theater at HMNS. He will discuss the U-2 Incident, the history of Cold War espionage and his experience establishing The Cold War Museum and serving as a technical consultant for Bridge of Spies. Tickets available online or at the box office.

Don’t miss our temporary espionage exhibit Spies, Traitors, Saboteurs: Fear and Freedom in America, open through next Monday, Jan. 18. Learn the secrets of spies before they disappear!

Still interested in espionage and counter-terrorism? Come back next week for a second spies lecture titled Terrorism, ISIS, and Emerging Threats — Evolution of Terrorism StrategyWednesday, Jan. 20 at 6:30 p.m. in the Wortham.