‘Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder’

A friend told me once that they liked “weird museums.” Since I think I want to open a weird museum someday, I asked her: “Such as?”

“The Museum of Jurassic Technology,” she said.

“What?”

“You can’t really tell what’s true and what’s not. And they serve tea!”

I looked at the MJT’s website (mjt.org) and was pretty mystified. There’s something about Noah’s Ark, and some mysterious exhibit titles (“No One May Ever Have the Same Knowledge Again: Letters to Mt. Wilson Observatory
1915-1935
“) but little idea of where the “Jurassic” comes in.

Eventually I found my way to Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder: Pronged Ants, Horned Humans, Mice on Toast, and other Marvels of Jurassic Technology, by Lawrence Weschler. Weschler first published his account of the MJT in Harper’s and that essay forms the first half of this volume, “Inhaling the Spore.”

In that first part, Weschler introduces the reader to David Hildebrand Wilson, proprietor of the MJT, and the strange and compelling contents of the storefront museum in Culver City, CA. Weschler describes three of the ever-present MJT exhibits: a stink ant that, upon inhaling a particular spore, is overtaken by a parasite; an opera singer and a memory-theorist nearly meet in Argentina; and a bat is caught, encased in solid lead. Each seems preposterous, and the fact that certain details feel like hand-waves rather than evidence, leads Weschler (and most visitors to the MJT) to suspect they have been caught up in some sort of massive prank. But Weschler loved the place. So he started talking to Wilson, visiting the MJT whenever he was in LA. As he went about his life, being a creative non-fiction writer and journalist, Weschler would occasionally look up the sources that Wilson cited. If he was talking to experts in biology, he might tell them about the MJT and ask how ridiculous the bat that could pass through solid walls was. He’d ask like it was a joke, but Weschler wanted to know. And while a lot of Wilson’s museum does not line up with our reality or at least not with the scholarship about our reality, there’s a lot more truth there than Weschler initially thought. I’ll leave it at that because you really should read it yourself, at least the first part, which is only 70 pages long.

Part II: Cerebral Growth, is a very different animal altogether. Wilson and his museum are really only major players in the last third of it. Instead, Weschler looks at the ideological heritage of the MJT and of museums in general, focusing mostly on the Cabinet of Curiosities model, or in German, the Wunderkammer. In the context of these  16th and 17th century collections, the MJT feeels right at home. Most importantly, Weschler succeeded in making me question whether that model of collection and display didn’t make just as much sense as museological practices today.

The kinds of sources that Weschler digs up in this second part often echo the kinds of sources Wilson provided him with in the first, to the point where I wasn’t sure what was real and what wasn’t. Which is the point. This book is nearly as wonderful and strange as the museum that inspired it (on my bucket list to see) and I must recommend it for anyone in search of a bit of mind-bending whimsy or, alternately, students in museological fields. I found myself wishing that this book had been on the reading list of my Historical Methods class; it would have brought public history methods more into frame and would have fit with some of the intellectual heritage we were examining each week. Take note, syllabus writers.

 

Photos of the Museum of Jurassic Technology by April K used under Creative Commons license “Attribution 2.0 Generic”

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