Letters to Mr. Wilson’s Museum of Jurassic Technology

Dear Mr. Wilson,

Your Museum of Jurassic Technology (MJT) first came to my attention in 1995 when I read an excerpt from Lawrence Weschler’s Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder in the New Yorker. Or anyway, that’s the origin story I’ve long remembered and told. As befits the reality-warping ethos of the MJT, it seems not to be true. I can find no record of such an article in the New Yorker’s archive. (Maybe I read it in Harpers?) What I can find, in the New York Times’ archive, is a review of the book that nicely captures that ethos:

Run by its eccentric proprietor out of a storefront in Culver City, Calif., the museum is clearly a modern-day version, as Mr. Weschler astutely points out, of the “wonder-cabinets” that sprang up in late Renaissance Europe, inspired by all the discoveries in the New World. David Wilson comes off as an amusingly Casaubonesque figure who, in his own little way, seeks to amass all the various kinds of knowledge in the world; and if his efforts seem random and arcane, they at any rate sound scientifically specific. Yet when Mr. Weschler begins to check out some of the information in the exhibits, we discover that much of it is made up or imagined or so elaborately embroidered as to cease to resemble any real-world facts.

The key to the pleasure of this book lies in that “much of,” for the point of David Wilson’s museum is that you can’t tell which parts are true and which invented. In fact, some of the unlikeliest items — the horned stink ants, for instance — turn out to be pretty much true. In the wake of its moment of climactic exposure, “Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder” turns into an expedition in which Lawrence Weschler tracks down the overlaps, correspondences and occasionally tenuous connections between historical and scientific reality on the one hand and the Museum of Jurassic Technology on the other.

We’ve always wanted to visit the MJT, and finally made the pilgrimage a few weeks ago. Cruising down the California coast on a road trip, the museum was our only LA destination. The miserable traffic we fought all day, both entering and leaving Culver City, was a high price to pay for several hours of joy at the museum. But it was worth it.

At one point during our visit, I was inspecting a display case filled with a collection of antique lace, each accompanied by a small freestanding sign describing the item. On one of the signs, the text degrades hilariously. As I remember it (no doubt imperfectly) there were multiple modes of failure: bad kerning, faulty line spacing, character misencoding, dropouts, faded print. Did I miss any?

While I was laughing at the joke, I became aware of another presence in the dark room, a man with white hair who seemed to pause near me before wandering off to an adjoining dark room. I thought it might be you, but I was too intimidated to ask.

The other night, looking for videos that might help me figure out if that really was you, I found a recording of an event at the USC Fisher Museum of Art. In that conversation you note that laughter is a frequent response to the MJT:

“We don’t have a clue what people are laughing about,” you said, “but it’s really hard to argue with laughter.”

I was laughing at that bit of hilariously degraded signage. I hope that was you hovering behind me, and I hope that you were appreciating my appreciation of the joke. But maybe not. Maybe that’s going to be another questionable memory. Whatever the truth may be, thank you. We need the laughs now more than ever.

Yours sincerely,

Jon Udell

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