Museum of Jurassic Technology

Rohit Khare (
Tue, 14 Oct 1997 10:02:02 -0700

[I'm on a real science-parody kick this month. Wonder what it has to do
with being back in school? :-]

BY JOHN McMURTRIE | 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

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

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

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.

SALON | Oct. 14, 1997

For more information on the Museum of Jurassic Technology visit the MJT Web
site. [ ]

John McMurtrie writes from Boston.

Rohit Khare /// Graduate Student /// UC Irvine Computer Science /// Work: (714) 824-3100 /// Home: (714) 823-9705

[Urgent? (617) 960-5131 still works to page me]