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The Best Time My Mind Was Blown

An exhibition about supposed ancient medical beliefs includes mice on toast and mouse pie.

The Museum of Jurassic Technology (MOJT) is a place that does not want to be found. Located in downtown Culver City in the middle of West Los Angeles, it’s stuck between a carpet shop and an abandoned real-estate office. A faded blue banner stating, ‘Museum’ offers the kind of obvious yet dubious clue that makes you think twice before entering; almost as if a cruel joke is about to begin at your expense. To save any embarrassment, I decided to view things through a prism of ironic skepticism. I worried for nothing! Unlike a lot of cultural expeditions, this isn’t something you plan and carve out time for; the MOJT is something that just happens if you’re lucky.

The horn of Mary Davis of Saughall

Upon entering the MOJT, I was immediately relieved by how, for want of a better word, ‘museumy’ it felt. Inside it is hushed, dark and solemn. The oak cases and velvet chairs adds to the immense sense of being safe amongst old things. It was a stark contrast to the baking Californian sun and the Spanish music blaring from the nearby park. I had arrived.

It fulfills the implied promise that galleries usually offer but fail to deliver: I felt transported and was slightly, though not hugely, exalted by it all. I’ve never been in a place where I constantly asked: ‘Where am I?’ Some things are fabricated but feel true; other pieces seem fabricated but are true. At no point in my visit was I ever comfortable enough to distinguish fact from fiction. It was disquieting. The exhibitions take leaps of imagination that at times can be breathtaking and often whimsical.

The introductory slideshow states that the place ‘is an educational institution dedicated to the advancement of knowledge and the public appreciation of the Lower Jurassic.’ The museum benefits the public by ‘providing the visitor a hands-on experience of life in the Jurassic.’ It never actually defines what it means by the term ‘Jurassic’ but I can assure you, dear reader, that Spielberg or dinosaurs never make an appearance.

 

Simply put, the MOJT is a museum about the nature of museums. It explores the past and how we use objects to graft a narrative to make sense of that past. As I strolled through an assortment of man-made objects placed beside natural wonders and works of art, I was touched by man’s limitless capacity for curiosity but I also wondered if the MOJT acts as a commentary on the narrowing of human culture into a range of material. A horn (said to have come from a woman’s head ) hanging on a wall;  a microminiaturized Donald Duck lodged through the eye of a needle;  portraits of Cosmonaut dogs who travelled into space in the 1960s at the behest of the USSR entitled ‘The Lives of Perfect Creatures.’

Some displays, finely constructed with academic looking citations are completely bogus. One case labelled MOUSE CURES contained a slice of golden toast placed beside a burnt pie. Two dead mice lay on the toast.  The pie and the toast are subscribed different myths. The first caption read:

‘Mouse Pie, when eaten with regularity, serves as a remedy for children who stammer.’ The one under the golden toast read: ‘Bed wetting or general incontinence of urine can be controlled by eating mice on toast, fur and all.’

Attached to the display was one of the academic looking citations that were peppered about:

 

A flayne Mouse, or made in powder and drunk at one tyme, doeth perfectly helpe such as cannot holde or keepe their water: especially, if it be used three days in this order. This is verie trye and often puruved.
1579
Thousand Notable Things 1/40

Interpretation is key to understanding this place.I kept struggling to make sense of it all until I realised that it is human wonder itself that the museum is interested in. I think it’s a celebration on what humans make of the world rather than any solid form of accuracy. What some would call a lark, I call a cerebral fantasy.

There were about 12 similar stands, each one firm in establishing their own spirit of odd, funny and slightly baleful legends. My favourite was the clinical pair of scissors glistening through the glass. The caption read:

Scissors At The Wedding Party

One wishing ill to the bridegroom stands behind the happy man and, holding an open pair of scissors, calls his name. If the groom turns to answer the scissors are snapped shut whereupon the groom is rendered incapable of consummating the marriage.

Bridegroom Scissors

The MOJT is the natural successor to the earliest type of museums. Novel artifacts such as Noah’s beard would be sharing space with natural and technological art. Art was not siphoned off into separate spheres; instead they were all amalgamated and encouraged to be viewed as one – different but overlapping attempts to document history. From the early Renaissance and ending with the dawn of the Enlightenment the Wunderkammern, literally translating as ‘Wonder Cabinets’ acted as a prop that enhanced the intellectual and emotional experience. Francis Bacon, writing in 1594, lists the essential criteria of such a place, ‘a goodly, huge cabinet, wherein…the hand of man by exquisite art or engine has made rare in stuff, form or motion; whatsoever singularity, chance and the shuffle of things hath produced; whatsoever Nature has wrought in things that want and life and may be kept.’

Columbus’s voyages to the New World initiated the age of wonder. ‘Wonder’ in this context referred both to the objects themselves and the state the objects provoked within viewers. The classical trope of stoic detachment quickly became obsolete in the face of such exotic relics. Adalgisa Lugli in her essay ‘Inquiry as Collection’ argues that wonder was viewed as the essential component to unlocking the secrets of nature. As she argues, ‘Wonder defined [as it was up to the end of the eighteenth century] as a form of learning…marks the end of unknowing and the beginning of knowing.’ Doubt is not a sign of failure rather, it acts as the pathway to knowledge. The MOJT exists at the delicious nexus of doubt and understanding; it harnesses premodern sensibilities in a postmodern world.

Interpretation is critical to understanding this museum. The place infects you with paranoia and I kept struggling to make sense of it all until I realised that it is wonder itself that is on display, which is the catalyst for all creativity. It details the very human need to tell stories about ourselves and how we punctuate those stories with tactile furnishings. By the time I was ready to leave, I concluded that the place is really a serious-playful take on museums. Ostensibly, it assumes the qualities of conventional cultural spaces with its dimmed lighting and air of pedantic scholarship while giving you glimpses of stunning eccentricity. Very knowing yet completely genuine. The MOJT is a celebration of what we make of the world rather than any meaningful form of accuracy. What some would call a lark, I call a cerebral fantasy.

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One response »

  1. “What some would call a lark, I call a cerebral fantasy.”

    How whimsical! I must go here before I die.

    Reply

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