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!

Come to Energy Day for a fun look into the future (and for funnel cake)!

What do funnel cakes and energy have in common?

That’s not a question most people ask. Thankfully there’s an easy answer and that’s Houston’s Energy Day this Saturday, Oct. 17 from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.! Houston’s Energy Day is the largest free family festival focused on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math), and they also have funnel cakes for sale! It’s a huge festival down in Sam Houston Park near the Heritage Society Museum.

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You can expect lots of awesome booths with fun activates and giveaways, and something fun for everybody. At the Navy booth, you can drive an underwater remotely operated vehicle (ROV) around a swimming pool. You can explore the interior of a NISSAN Leaf electric car. NASA will be on-site for cool giveaways, and both the Houston Rockets and the Houston Astros will have booths, so you can shoot some hoops and play a game of catch (though probably not at the same time).

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In addition to all the fun activities, there will be an award ceremony for the winners of several contests that have been going on during the year, such as The Houston Geological Society/Houston Museum of Natural Science/Consumer Energy Alliance Art, Essay & Media Contests. Winning students and teachers will receive scholarship money and a photo holding the big check.

Art Essay and and Media Contest

Live music will play between the award ceremonies. Alongside all the festivities and funnel cakes, our museum will be there, of course! I’ll be playing with a Van de Graaf generator (shocking I know), we’ll have a cast of some dinosaur bones for you to touch, and much, much more.

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So sleep in that Saturday and in the late morning, head down to Sam Houston Park for a free, fun-filled festival! See you there!

In the meantime, take a look at the rest of these other images from Energy Day in previous years.

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Legend of the Peg Elves: Boy Scout Overnights offer a glimpse into museum folklore

The lights in the Morian Hall of Paleontology brighten and illuminate the Tyrannosaurus rex. The immersive soundscape in The Farish Hall of Texas Wildlife comes to life. The periodic table powers on in the Welch Hall of Chemistry. And the peg elves emerge.

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When the lights go out in the museum, the exhibits seem to come to life. Legend has it this is when the peg elves emerge. Photo by Jason Schaefer.

That’s right. As the museum gears up for another day of exploring, learning, and excitement, the peg elves at the Houston Museum of Natural Science begin to stir. They have an important job to do. They are the protectors of the pegs.

The Foucault Pendulum is an icon at HMNS, just outside the Wiess Energy Hall. If you’ve ever found yourself walking through the exhibit halls and suddenly heard an uproar of cheering, then you know it happened; the pendulum has finally knocked over one of the wooden pegs. This happens once every 12 to 13 minutes and has captivated museum audiences for decades with its ability to demonstrate the Earth’s rotation. You can hear the disappointment when visitors feel certain the pendulum is going to knock down a peg, but it swings ever so slightly by it. It’s something I remember watching intently as a child. You root for the pendulum to mark the passage of time by knocking down one of those innocent pegs. It’s the spectator sport of HMNS.

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The Foucault Pendulum outside the Wiess Energy Hall demonstrates the motion of the Earth as it rotates. It takes about 13 minutes for the pendulum to knock down a single peg, and it changes direction as our planet rotates beneath it. Photo by Jason Schaefer.

The kids who spend the night at the museum often ask us a lot of questions about the inner workings of the museum. Frequently, they want to know “How do you get those dinosaurs in here?”, “Does everything come to life at night?” and “Who sets all the pegs back up?” That’s when we tell them about the magical yet elusive HMNS peg elves.

Scotland has the Loch Ness Monster. The Himalayas have the Yeti. HMNS has peg elves. The peg elves are bearded creatures who inhabit the innermost workings of the museum. They wait in the depths of the museum for the pendulum to swing back and forth knocking each peg down. The sound of the peg clattering on the tile is music to their ears. It calls to them. It’s their mission and purpose to set those pegs back up.

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This composite sketch was created using eyewitness reports of the peg elves over the years. Reports identify the elves as typically wearing Santa hats and sunglasses, having pointy ears and beards, and reaching heights no taller than six inches.

Early in the morning before the first visitor enters the museum, the peg elves get to work. They move quickly and scamper over the walls surrounding the pegs. They place each peg with precision. The young elves observe with watchful eyes as the elders re-position the pegs. The physics of peg positioning is an art, so it’s only after a dutiful mentoring period that the younger elves are permitted to assist with the pegs. Young elves dream of the day they’re able to prop a peg up on their own. It’s a rite of passage in peg elf society.

After all the pegs are in place, the peg elves return quickly and quietly to their museum hideouts. They wait in the wings to hear that collective cheer as the pendulum swings. The peg elves know that it means there will be more work for them in the morning. After all, they are the guardians of the pendulum, the protectors of the pegs.

Peg Elf Footprints

Here you can see where we’ve successfully tracked a group of peg elves. The tiny footprints are evidence of their presence at HMNS.

Interested in sneaking a peak at the HMNS peg elves for yourself? Visit our Overnights page for information on how you can spend a night at the museum and get a glimpse of these mysterious creatures in the morning hours!

If you’re a Cub Scout or Webelos, register for our Scout Overnight on Oct. 9! You’ll get a chance to explore the museum after hours, see a Burke Baker Planetarium show and sleep in one of our renowned exhibit halls! Visit Scout Overnights or email us for more information!