The Museum of Jurassic Technology is located in Los Angeles’ Palms neighborhood. The museum was founded by David Hildebrand Wilson three decades ago and celebrates its 30th birthday this year. Inside the museum are curiosities like a shop front out of Harry Potter with its carved stone fountain and little niches housing artifacts. If you dare to cross the threshold, you’ll find more than you could ever guess about “Jurassic technology”.
It’s nearly impossible to put into words how amazing this place is. City guides frequently tout their local offerings as “one of a kind.” However, it’s rare to find a cultural destination with so few modern analogs. It is, without a doubt, America’s most under-appreciated museum, and L.A.’s most frequently overlooked. However calling it a “museum” raises its own set of questions.
The first thing you’ll see after turning right from the ticket counter is a scale model of Noah’s Ark. A glass case displays a preserved specimen of Megolaponera foetens, the “stink ant of Cameroon in West Central Africa.” The exhibit explains that the ant spends almost its entire life on the forest floor until it inhales the spores of a specific fungus. Which then takes over its brain and drives it to climb a tree until it dies. The fungus spreads from the ant’s body until it can release more spores, restarting the process. A model of such an ant on a branch is on display, with a small pin of a mushroom cap sticking out of it.
The stink ant isn’t real, but determining what is and isn’t here is difficult. This defies everything we’ve been taught to expect from a museum, including the definition of the term itself. In general, these are institutions that present information. You could calm your nerves by picturing the Museum of Jurassic Technology as an elaborate art space. However that would undermine some of the museum’s most important points about history, art, science, and, most importantly, human perceptions of them. While there is no such thing as Megolaponera foetens, parasitic fungi that control the minds of ants and other insects do exist. The museum is fantastical, but it is never as far removed from reality as one might think.
The best way to think about this strange exhibit collection is as a place where all myths and tales are valued for their elements of truth. Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonders, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in nonfiction in 1996. Described by Lawrence Weschler as a giant-sized cabinet of curiosities. For hundreds of years, European men of means kept such cabinets (then private rooms) full of unusual or distinct objects, dating back to the Renaissance. These cabinets displayed objects that were not yet fully understood in an age of scientific discovery.
Humans now may be tempted to believe that we understand the world to a reasonable degree. Wilson’s museum challenges this notion by presenting alternative theories on everything from memory to medicine.
Despite its small size, the building’s two floors are densely packed. Micro-sculptures etched from pinheads, rice grains, and fruit stones can be found in a nook. Another exhibit features human horns. One section is devoted to home remedies for common ailments, such as eating dead mice on toast to stop bedwetting or inhaling duck’s breath to cure thrush. There’s a show about Soviet space dogs, and another about string figure making.
Moving through the Museum of Jurassic Technology feels like you’re in the presence of ghosts, or maybe you’re one. The exhibits constantly show off a slight, unearthly gleam because the interior is windowless and kept in low light. Many exhibits include old-fashioned phones that whisper information into your ear. Dioramas with lenses that project holograms of human figures onto their landscapes are available. On the upper floor, there is a theater that shows in-house experimental films, as well as a reconstruction of Tsar Nicolas II’s study where tea and cookies are served. The structure has an open-air garden with doves, where you can occasionally find a musician playing a nyckelharpa. In short, this space exudes a calming, all-encompassing otherworldliness.
Albert G. Richards – Father Of X-Ray Tech.
The collection of flower stereo radiographs? Actual works by Albert G. Richards, the father of x-ray technology. What are Geoffrey Sonnabend’s unconventional theories on the nature of memory? Probably made up. What about the Soviet space dogs? Real. Athanasius Kircher, the German polymath who claimed to know everything? Real. His theories about the Universe’s mechanics? Not quite feasible. Just as David Wilson has spent decades putting these stories together, one could easily waste years researching them if they are not careful. It’s far preferable to simply lose yourself in the museum for a while. It is a living testament to Hamlet’s remark that there are more things in heaven and earth than any of us could possibly imagine.
And few would imagine such an institution exists in this small Westside Los Angeles neighbourhood. Hopefully, as it enters its 30th year, the Museum of Jurassic Technology will become less of an oddity.