Mondo museo

Myth and reality commingle at Culver City's Museum of Jurassic Technology.

Published October 14, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

in the afternoon heat, Culver City's Venice Boulevard, with its 10-lane strip of gas stations, fast-food restaurants and car lots, seemed like the wrong place to spend any of my short vacation in Los Angeles.

But I soon spotted my destination, an old and windowless storefront painted over in dull gray and brown, and rang the doorbell. A minute passed, and the metal-grated door was gently opened by a short, smiling man whose loose-fitting clothes matched the nondescript colors of the building.

He politely motioned me in, and instantly I felt a welcome rush of cool air, and my eyes had to adjust to what seemed like nighttime darkness. I heard crickets chirping above, and somewhere in the distance, what sounded like a fox.

I had entered the Museum of Jurassic Technology.

Now, I didn't quite know what to expect at the MJT, as it's also called. I only knew it was not a "traditional" museum, and I had heard it described as a museum of curiosity, a place in which to "wonder." But before I could ask any questions, the man who had let me in disappeared and I was left to wander -- and wonder -- by myself.

I proceeded to a slide-show introduction in which a recorded voice reverently described the museum as "a specialized repository of relics and artifacts from the Lower Jurassic, with an emphasis on those that demonstrate unusual or curious technological qualities."

No dinosaurs were mentioned, and it became clear that this place had a possible connection only to the Jurassic Period, not Spielberg's creatures.

The recorded voice proudly traced the roots of the MJT to natural history museums dating back centuries, and the assembled visitors let out nervous giggles as background classical music began to nearly drown out its mini-lecture. In a rousing finale, the voice proclaimed that in a museum such as this one, "the learner must be led always from familiar objects toward the unfamiliar -- guided along, as it were, a chain of flowers into the mysteries of life."

I walked a few feet and came upon my first such unfamiliar object -- the stink ant. I picked up a phone next to a diorama of a leafy scene, and a voice told me of the following mystery of life:

In the Cameroonian rain forest lives a large ant that produces a cry loud enough to be heard by the human ear. Occasionally, one of these ants, while foraging for food, will inadvertently inhale a microscopic fungus. The fungus rests in the ant's brain, where it begins to grow, thereby causing changes in the ant's behavior.

For the first time in its life, the ant leaves the forest floor, climbing a plant until it has worn itself out. It bites into the plant and waits to die. The fungus grows, consuming the ant's innards, and after a couple of weeks, a spike emerges out of what had been the ant's head. The tip of this spike is loaded with fungus spores that then rain down onto the forest floor for other unsuspecting ants to inhale.

Surely, this was one of the most incredible stories of the natural world I had ever come across. It exemplified the marvels of evolution, how mysterious and beautifully -- or brutally -- orchestrated nature can be. But as soon as I had seen this display, I went to the next, and began to wonder just how incredible -- or credible -- the previous one actually was.

What I came across was a glass box that held a fruit pit the size of a pinkie nail. According to a caption, it was carved with a Flemish landscape that featured a collection of animals, a man tuning a viol and a crucifix. A small mirror behind the pit showed what appeared to be a cross, but as for the rest -- was that dim lighting intentional? -- I couldn't make it out. It could have all been there, but I wasn't certain.

It was a feeling I was beginning to have about the museum as a whole, that suddenly things were not necessarily what they seemed -- unless I was willing to believe them to be so. This was confirmed for me when I rounded a corner from which I had heard the barking. Sure enough, there in a glass case was the head of an American gray fox. I looked closer, and projected inside the fox's head was a moving, three-dimensional image of a seated man, barking.

As I continued touring the museum, I was similarly drawn to each display. Some of what I saw was presented as fact, some as myth, and the more I saw, the less it actually mattered what was "true" and what wasn't. The beauty of it all was that it seemed as if everything I came across could be real. More importantly, I felt, was whether or not I had the capacity to drop my defenses, to simply be free to wonder.

This was especially the case in one room of the museum dedicated to "traditional beliefs" that, as the MJT put it, have been "ghettoized" over the past century "under the spurious classification of 'superstition.'"

I entered the space hearing thunder and got a taste of what was to come by reading this marvelous quote: "Is your science bold enough to give the cause and origin of thunder? ... For in the face of thunder, the philosophers are no braver than the rest."

Each of the beliefs was enshrined in glass cases with displays that were works of art in and of themselves. One caption informed visitors that "children afflicted with thrush and other fungous mouth or throat disorders can be cured by placing the bill of a duck or goose in the mouth of the afflicted child for an extended period of time." Accompanying the caption was a stuffed duck's head, its bill planted firmly in the mouth of a wax face.

Another case, displaying a scythe, recommended that "to heal a cut or a wound made by an instrument, clean and polish the instrument, and the wound will heal cleanly."

One hilarious (if unappetizing) display presented visitors with two stuffed mice on a piece of burnt toast. A 16th century citation claimed that "a flayne Mouse, or made in powder and drunk at one tyme, doeth perfectly helpe such as cannot holde or keepe their water."

It seemed fitting that with this funny -- if perplexing -- display, I had reached the end of my tour of the museum, and I was left with the sensation of having a pleasant brain cramp. I was provoked to think of why such a belief had ever existed (if in fact it had), and I was amused to imagine the connections that might have spawned such a cure.

I needed some answers, so I tracked down the man who had let me in the door, the man who, it turns out, is the mastermind of all I had just seen.

David Wilson is a modest person, someone who credits his staff, and not himself, for what the museum has become since opening nine years ago. He's also a bit shy, not one to gloat about his accomplishments -- much less willingly discuss any meaning of his museum. Perhaps this is partly why some visitors perceive this bespectacled 51-year-old to be little more than a crafty prankster.

This obviously pains Wilson.

"Some people have asked us if this is a joke, and that's galling," he said. "We're enormously sincere about what we're doing."

Still, it's clear Wilson is having some fun, and hopes to titillate visitors, and he points out himself that it's a short jump from "muse" (museum being a spot dedicated to muses) to "amuse."

I asked him if he thought of what he was doing as performance art. Wilson, who studied art in college and later made short films, calmly stroked his gray mustache-less beard. "What's it mean?" he said of performance art. "What is the real you and what is something you're presenting?"

Wilson did say he was "definitely inspired a lot by other museums," and this is apparent in the lovingly crafted displays, the dead-earnest caption writing and narrations and the spare, refined feel of the MJT's eight rooms. The use of "technology" in the museum's name is also telling. Wilson said it refers to the "the technologies of display" such as "acoustic contrivance." As for "Jurassic," he said it was "like an homage" to an early museum donation that consisted largely of fossils.

While Wilson may make use of the language of museums, he said he takes pleasure in "being able to present things that are overlooked by the mainstream culture." These "things" -- these natural wonders and beliefs -- are exhibited in museum fashion, yet many simply stand by themselves, as displays, with no cultural or historical reference points. Who exactly discovered the stink ant, anyway? Which culture actually believed that eating cooked mice cured bed- wetting?

And it is precisely this lack of explanation that explains the museum's intent.

Wilson spoke of a woman who, after recently touring the museum, was "really quite upset. She said she felt it just wasn't nice that we led people on, but then showed them nothing."

Wilson said he talked with the visitor, heard her out, but provided few answers of his own.

"We don't want to prejudice other people's views of the exhibits," he said, "so we don't like to say too clearly what exhibits mean to us. It's far best to allow that whole variety of interpretations room to express themselves."

Perhaps what says it best is a pre-Columbian fetish that serves as a sort of mascot for the museum. It's a simple figure whose eyes, a pair of ovals underscored by lines, appear to be -- at the same time -- either open or closed. It all depends on how you look at them.

By John McMurtrie

John McMurtrie writes from Boston

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