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?

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!

This Dino Toy’s All Wrong! What’s Up With That!?

by “Jurassic” James Washington III

With the exception of our feathered friends, dinosaurs are all but gone today. So what are the ways to connect to these long lost creatures? Well as a child I had three options — museums, media and models. Going to the Houston Museum of Natural Science and standing in the shadows of the fossilized skeletons gave me a sense of their size and majesty. Dinosaurs in the media consisted of news stories, articles, documentaries and books. But the models (or toys) were the third part my mind needed to fully imagine these masters of the Mesozoic. For some reason holding a model of the animal in my hand gave my mind the final ingredient to fully imagine dinosaurs as they might have looked.

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As an adult I have the honor of working at the museum as a Discovery Tour Guide specializing in the Morian Hall of Paleontology. I literally get to go to the museum five out of seven days a week! I have traded in my documentaries for scientific text books and published journals. And although I stopped playing with the toys, I still collect them, using them as models in contrast to the actual fossils upstairs. Which brings me to the point of this article. In the age of the Internet and easily accessible museums and colleges, how is it that certain tour companies can make inaccurate models? It may seem minor to an outside observer, but the number of fingers and toes or the lack of a crest are some important ways to make a species identifiable.

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For the record I am not commenting on fictional dinosaur-like creatures such as Godzilla or the Indominus Rex from the movie Jurassic World (2015). Or the changes made through time, such as the orientation of the necks and tails of Sauropods (long necked dinosaurs) like Diplodocus. Or how Velociraptor toys have no feathers in the early 1990’s. Those toys were made with the accepted science of the time, though now we know they were wrong. I am also not considering how some dinosaur toys are made cute for preschool-age children. My remarks are on toy companies that claim to make scientifically accurate toys/models in the 2000’s without certain diagnostic features.

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Diplodocus through time. Manufacturer and year produced from left to right: Collect A 2013, K&M 2004, TS 2001, British Museum (Natural History) 1974, Safari Ltd 2006, Safari and later Carnegie 1988.

As displayed by the image above, Diplodocus has seen a variety of modifications in the toy and model world. Yet each model maintains its long, whip-like tail, narrow horse-like face, hind legs longer than forelimbs and general slender form when compared with other Sauropods. No matter the incarnation, you know it is Diplodocus.

Another easy example is the genre Stegosaurus, which has three toes on its hind limbs. This feature (narrow pillar-like feet) indicates Stegosaurus lived in a dryer or at least more solid surface and not in swamps. So when I see a Stegosaur toy or model with the five standard toes of lizards, I can’t help but wonder why they didn’t take the time to consult someone, anyone, in the field of paleontology before they began production. It’s like making a modern rhinoceros toy with rodent feet or giving a giraffe zebra stripes. Just google “Stegosaurus skeleton” and the number of toes is consistent on pretty much all the images.

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The many faces of Stegosaurus. Manufacturer and year from left to right: Toy Major Trading CO. LTD. 2008, Jasman 2001,Dur Mei 1986, Jurassic Park’s Kenner 1993, The Lost World’s Kenner 1997, Safari LTD, Dino Riders 1989, Papo 2005, Dinosaur Valley 2005, Safari 2007 and K&M 2004.

Of the eleven Stegosaur models/toys in the above only four have the correct number of toes! Dino Rider 1989 (surprisingly), Papo 2005, Safari 2007 and K&M 2004. The two on the far left of the picture have five and the rest have four. What I find most surprising is the fact that Safari put out two different figures with different numbers of toes?

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Mosasaurs show me those pearly whites! Manufacturer and year from left to right: Safari 2010, Carnegie 2008, Papo 2012, Collect A 2009 and Mojo 2010.

Mosasaurs are the marine reptiles of the upper Cretaceous period that were made even more famous by Jurassic World. Although the movie made the animal too large, they did get one thing right. Mosasaurs, like pythons, possess a second row of teeth inside their jaws. Only one of five Mosasaur models have that iconic feature. The 2008 Carnegie model seen second to the left is the only one with the correct dentition. When I show this feature to museum guests on tours, they are shocked and amazed! I can see why now — 80 percent of Mosasaur toys in the mainstream market lack that feature. But know that the Jurassic World Mosasaur has the teeth, which can be seen when it eats the poor British woman who did nothing wrong. Unfortunately the Jurassic World Mosasaur toy (which I do not have yet) neglected to be consistent with their own movie. No second row of teeth!

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Ceratosaurus family reunion.

Ceratosaurus lived in North America during the upper Jurassic. The name Ceratosaurus translates to “horned lizard” because it has a nose horn and two crests over its eyes. Ceratosaurus also has four fingers on its forelimbs. The tall yellow one in the back is from Remco Galaxy fighters from the 1980’s. It has the nose horn but only one crest between its eyes. But it does have all four fingers! The tall green one to the left has the nose horn, but is missing the eye crests altogether and only has three fingers. One step forward, two steps back. It also lacks its manufacturer’s logo, as if they didn’t want to take credit for their work…

The figure with a purple hide and pink nose horn is labeled Oviraptor. Which is almost a felony if you knew anything about Ceratosaurus or Oviraptor! The toy is manufactured by Boley, who is known for putting out mislabeled figures in the world of fast and furious dinosaur toy collecting. But it does have the nose horn and four fingers. If it had two eye crests it would be a good example (in toy form) of Ceratosaurus. Too bad it’s labeled Oviraptor. In front on the right is the Jurassic World Ceratosaurus. It has a nose horn, two crest-like projections over the eyes and four fingers. I know it’s not said very often, but good job Jurassic Park franchise on your scientific accuracy. The medium figure in the middle with a red hide and yellow underbelly is from 1998 (hard to read the stomach). The horn and crests are good enough, but it only has four fingers. Missed it by that much.

I saved the best for last. The three small figures on the lower left are, from left to right, Safari 1996, Safari 2012 and Terra 2015. All three figures have the correct horns, crests and finger counts! In short, buy the smaller more detailed models.

Dino7But there is a silver lining. As you might have noticed there is an attempt to correct these mistakes over time. And the Boley figure to the left tells it all. When this very same figure was produced in the early 2000’s it was labeled Metriacanthosaurus. Metriacanthosaurus was like a Ceratosaurs without horns and a small sail running down its back and tail. Later the name was changed to Edaphosurus. This was close but still wrong, but they at least classified it outside the dinosaur clade. The animal the toy represents is a relative of Edaphosaurus. Unfortunately, an Edaphosaurus has a smaller skull and a sail of a different shape, and the spines have small projections. But one day, one glorious day, I saw this figure label Dimetrodon. A victory, no matter how small. After two failed attempts, Boley finally got it right. The third time was actually a charm!

Now I know you may think of me as a grown man obsessed with dinosaur toys, and you are probably right. But my fiancé thinks it’s cute. She considers it better than collecting motorcycles or gambling. All I’m saying is many people go to college to earn degrees and/or commit countless hours to understanding the exact morphology of these long-extinct animals. And for a toy company to barely attempt to fact check an educational model that they sell to children? It’s just unacceptable. Imagine a store selling toy tigers with stripes and lion-like manes, whales with gill slits and blow holes or sea lions with long floppy rabbit ears. And that weirdness is what plagues comments. Thank you.

Editor’s Note: Watch for a special exhibit opening in the Morian Hall of Paleontology Feb. 19! Amber Secrets: Feathers from the Age of Dinosaurs offers a glimpse back in time to the forests of Burma in middle Cretaceous, when plants were just beginning to develop flowers. See extinct insects trapped inside fossilized tree resin, and an astounding surprise: feathers in the time of T. rex and Triceratops!

James is a Discovery Guide at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

The Adventures of Archie the Wandering T. rex: England

by Karen Whitley

Man am I one lucky dinosaur. When I was adopted last summer from the Museum Store at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, I had no idea I was on my way to becoming a world traveler, a globetrotter, an adventurer if you will. Just call me Lemuel Gulliver! (Like from Gulliver’s Travels? Get it??)

Well, actually, I was given the name Archibald… (Pretentious much?) But you can call me Archie. While my cousins and friends all waited to be adopted, I packed my suitcase (let me tell you, not so easy with short arms) and began my new life. A life filled with far off places, daring swordfights, magic spells, a prince in disguise… eh, maybe not so much. Let’s just say my human watches a little too much Disney.

To celebrate, my new family and I went off on a summer vacation! I did worry about the airplane, I mean flying dinosaurs….it’s not natural. But luckily everything went smoothly. The food wasn’t great and all, but I did get to catch up on some movies, and they even gave me some wings! I’m telling you, wings on a dinosaur… Not natural. Before I knew it, we had set down in Merry Ol’ England. Did you know they have a queen and princes (I wonder if they are in disguise), but no king? Guess I’m the king around here!AirportLondon is such a busy city! Taxi drivers zooming in and out, people filling the sidewalks, lines of big red buses everywhere. There was so much to see and do: from walks in St. James Park and Kensington Gardens (and ice cream), to Westminster Abby, Buckingham Palace (and ice cream), St. Paul’s Cathedral, LEGOLAND (and ice cream), and more (plus more ice cream)! The adventure never stopped! Here are just a few highlights from this great country.

There was this old clock that everyone was taking photos with… Big Ben, I’m told. Do you think I can get people to call me Big Archie? I won’t lie; for a clock, it was pretty spectacular. I reminds me of the Chronophage back home at HMNS.Big BenOM NOM NOM!! Look at me, I’m eating the clock! Godzilla IRL! LOL! JK…Eating Big BenThen we went on this giant Ferris wheel called the London Eye. We got a really cool bird’s-eye view of London, but for some reason people kept taking photos of me, even people in the pods next to us. Guess they had never seen a blue dinosaur before. It ain’t easy being blue.London EyeHey look, there’s the clock thing again! See it to the right?London Eye 4I even went on my first boat ride down the Thames to see the London Bridge (eh, not that impressed…) and the Tower Bridge (now THERE’s a bridge!), where we ended up at the Tower of London.Tower Bridge 2You’ll be happy to know that the ravens were present and accounted for when I left. I did try to eat a few, but since apparently that would have been disastrous to the realm of England. They kept them pretty safe. What do you think, would I make a good guard? (I’m pretty good at standing still…)Guard TowerWe did leave London to go out into the country to visit Leeds Castle in Kent, which was amazing! I mean, it has a moat. Who doesn’t love a moat?Castle LeedsThere was a tricky maze, which is not easy when you’re nine inches tall (Ok, eight and a half, but who’s counting?), but I didn’t let it stop me. Here’s me in the center of the maze!Castle Leeds Maze 2My final adventure in England was at King’s Cross Station where I journeyed onto Platform 9 3/4. They even sorted me into a house, Ravenclaw… They seemed to think it was where I belonged before I ran through the wall. Hmmm, magic, princes, a far off place… All we needed was a sword fight. Maybe my life is turning out like a Disney film, after all.Harry PotterSpeaking of Disney, tune in again in a couple of weeks as I tell you about my adventures in Paris that includes a trip to Disney! As for this trip to England, that’s about all the stories I have to tell. Until next time!

Oh, I almost forgot. I’ve got a big family still waiting to be adopted at the HMNS Museum Store! Stop by and meet them all, including my big brother! If they’re lucky, maybe you’ll take them on adventures, too!

Editor’s Note: Karen is Birthday Party Manager in the HMNS Marketing department.