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Issue 39 March-April 1998 RSS

The Museum Museum

Interview

An interview with David Wilson, founder of Los Angeles' enigmatic Museum of Jurassic Technology

The Museum of Jurassic Technology occupies an unassuming spot between a real estate office and a forensic lab in Culver City, a section of Los Angeles not generally known for its culture. Easily overlooked, the museum tends to be discovered by surprise. All the familiar markers of institutional decorum are present and operational: in the foyer are a reception desk, a small gift shop, and a plaque on the wall listing the museum’s numerous supporters. An introductory slide show leads off a twisting course down a narrow hallway lined with a dense succession of wall texts, graphics and vitrines, opening on either side to the rooms that house the museum’s larger, rotating exhibits. A sense of academic opulence prevails throughout: the display cases are as finely crafted as the models within. The spotlights illuminate one object after another in time to an accompanying narrative, delivered in the calm and unquestionable voice of authority. Yet this consistently convincing quality of presentation is challenged at every turn by the ambiguities of the museum’s contents, which follow no prescribed chronology or theme, and are at times openly conflicting. One may begin to doubt the veracity of this particular museum, and this doubt may spill over to museums in general. If it is at some point established that all museums are equally prone to unstable elements - or as the MJT’s founder David Wilson would have it, that memory itself is largely invented - then the question of what is true and what is false becomes moot. One must then assign a different sort of use-value to the information provided, and this calls for a level of creative engagement that museums are perhaps no longer in the habit of demanding.

Jan Tumlir: References to Noah’s Ark appear throughout The Museum of Jurassic Technology - do you see it as a kind of underlying motif?

David Wilson: We like to think of it as an image for our museum, although I believe it applies to the project of museums in general. Noah’s Ark was the first and most complete Museum of Natural History ever assembled, based as it was on an encyclopaedic notion of gathering and collecting.

Your model of the Ark looks like a Modernist building block, with minutely subdivided confines, a series of intersecting grids to house and separate the species. Where did you find the plans for this construction?

The design comes from Genesis. There’s a detailed description, laying out the dimensions quite clearly. Up until the 19th century, Noah’s Ark was always portrayed as this great, elongated shoebox-like shape; only later did it start to take on a more ship-like quality with a hull and keel.

The ark is just one attempt to manifest, as convincingly as possible, a content that is probably metaphorical. Elsewhere you present a map of The Siege of the Battle of Padua which is similarly cobbled together from several conflicting accounts. And then there are the plans and renderings of the Tower of Babel, all composed well after the fact rather than through direct observation. Are these literal examples of what you’ve described as the open incongruity of the earliest museums of natural history - ‘An incongruity born of the overzealous spirit in the face of unfathomable phenomena’?

It is wonderful how, for example, all those images of the Tower of Babel vary so greatly. I think that the wall on The Siege of the Battle of Padua really brings to mind the sense of the number of artists who’ve reproduced it, none of whom really had a first-hand account. There’s this quality of failure, of the impossibility of representing something faithfully or the futility of the attempt. Maps and plans look very trustworthy, but they may or may not be.

In the introductory slide presentation, a line is traced from the Library of Alexandria to the collection of relics in Medieval Europe, to the Renaissance Wunderkammer, to the appearance of a high-museum culture during the Age of Enlightenment, to its popularisation in the New World. Would you say that this movement constitutes a gradual freeing up of specialised information?

Well, there definitely is a movement, I would agree, toward a more populist access to this kind of knowledge. It went from existing only in the hands of the elite, to Charles Wilson Peale’s museum, the first popular museum, open to people from all walks of life. We’re very interested in the notion of museums as places where all people can come and learn, but the thing that all these museums stressed is their function as a place for the muses, a place of inspiration. I think the difference between the earlier collections and the later ones is that they opened up that notion of inspiration to a broader range of people.

But as soon as this goal is reached, a whole new problem comes in. A critical point was marked when Peale’s collection in Philadelphia was acquired by P.T. Barnum, who scattered its contents in the emerging spectacle economy. Entertainment for profit became the overriding principle under Barnum - do you think that this was somehow destined to happen?

Well, I think the differences between those men weren’t so great. Peale spoke of ‘enlightened entertainment’. I mean, to be entertained means that you’re brought into something, and Peale was very interested in bringing people into an appreciation of natural history. That was his passion, to share with people his understanding of the workings of this universe through an appreciation of natural phenomena.

Would you make a distinction, then, between his desire to fix or stabilise knowledge and the process of information diffusion, merging and scattering that Barnum represents?

Barnum had shows that he took around the country but he also had a museum which was static - The American Museum. It was what he was renowned for, and actually that’s where Peale’s collection went. There was a difference between what these two men were doing, and I agree that Barnum’s emphasis shifted to amusement, but his goal was not simply to gain wealth. He loved presenting things that expanded people’s understanding, things they had never seen before. He derived enormous pleasure from bringing them the most beautiful things, like the most beautiful voice they’d ever heard. He brought a woman in from Sweden, Jenny Lind, who sang like a nightingale. He certainly didn’t go broke doing it, but at least part of his motivation was simply to present an exquisite voice to people all over the country.

But there was a difference in their funding.

Barnum did well financially, he was a rich man. Peale was not a rich man. He was a portrait painter by vocation, and always struggling to keep the museum open, which he did, pretty much throughout his whole life. Barnum definitely focused more on making this kind of activity a social success, and he was hugely successful. One of the reasons, maybe, was that he was more catholic in his tastes. He didn’t mind showing strangeness for its own sake.

As places where information from the past is made retrievable for present and future use, museums are sometimes thought to be modelled on the human mind. I think you would agree with this characterisation, but for reasons other than those generally given. As the display on Geoffrey Sonnabend and his Theory of Obliscence makes clear, it is forgetting as much as remembering that defines museum practice.

Right, you can’t remember the things you’ve forgotten, and yet there’s an illusion that we have access to the past, that we can remember history, when really we make it up. It’s the unreliable nature of it all that interests me.

Sonnabend’s major contribution to scientific literature was a three-volume work on forgetting which was itself quickly forgotten and banished to the farthest depths of the scientific archive. It was basically ignored until you came along.

The dusty archive, right. My assistant Sachiyo Yoshimoto was in England recently and she brought back these wonderful pictures of the Manchester Public Library. There are parts of the library locked behind very high gates, dark and impenetrable looking things. Behind them you can see stacks of very old books, covered with dust. All the books do is collect dust back there.

It makes me think of the library in The Name of the Rose where you can’t even get past the front desk. It’s basically up to the librarian to select the book that’s right for you.

There’s a whole hermetic tradition of the transmission of knowledge, which is very often done through a guide, where you gain access to information at the time that you need it. At a certain point in a person’s development it becomes exactly what they need to know and before that it’s meaningless. I think it happens all the time to people here at the museum. It’s the only way to account for the huge variety of responses that people have. Some are ready to see this material in a certain way - it brings up a certain kind of knowledge or understanding in them - whereas for others it doesn’t at all.

Sonnabend thought up his theory of forgetting while convalescing from a nervous breakdown at a sanatorium in Latin America. His inspiration was a performance by a singer named Madalena Delani, who was herself chronically forgetful, and this was said to account for the dramatic quality of loss and longing in her voice. The museum’s presentation emphasises an intimate relation between the sciences and the arts, at least in former times - is this still the case?

Oh, definitely. I think that science and art share that notion of inspiration. Art inspires science, but it could just as easily be science inspiring art. It’s a kind of parity. Many scientists talk about exactly the same kind of sensations that people have in the creation of artistic works - that sense of wonder when you’re on the verge of discovery, of being at the threshold of something that is beyond your knowledge. This may not happen all that often in a career, much of which is in fact scientific process, proof of hypothesis, etc., but there are those moments, if you’re lucky, of complete awe and mystery and wonder.

I learned from Lawrence Wechsler’s book (Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonders, 1995) that, before enrolling at Calarts in 1974, you studied both the natural sciences and art at Michigan’s Kalamazoo College. It seems that you formulated your programme early on, to act as a conduit between these two worlds.

I wasn’t intentionally doing that, but it kind of worked out that way. Those interests evolved over the years. I couldn’t ever quite make sense of them. They seemed sort of virgin until I finally started the museum and that really brought them together. There used to be no distinction at all, and that’s probably why I’m so attracted to those earlier times.

Maybe it’s just a question of means and ends. I was thinking about how, for example, Sonnabend was inspired by art to rethink his scientific theory, while your show of micro-miniatures by Hagop Sandaldjian might point in the opposite direction, of putting the tools and techniques of science into the service of art.

When Ralph Rugoff was writing about Hagop Sandaldjian, he noticed that this combination of art, science and novelty is like an onslaught. All of them together, as he put it, befuddle our normal ability to know, to make distinctions, and you just give up. Is it art? You can’t say, and that’s great. You can’t name it, and by naming it, dismiss it.

You seem to be especially interested in scientific developments that involve a kind of revelatory flash generally motivated by outside forces - the arts, religion, magic, travel, etc. Would you agree that such breaks with standard practice have come to be viewed with suspicion, not as breakthroughs so much as a breakdowns?

I think there are all kinds of connections. To break through is to break down - not always, by any means, but it’s one way of getting to the place where you can see things in a new way. When you exhaust your previous perspectives, you’re left open to seeing things from a completely new perspective. In Sonnabend’s case, it’s a really radical shift because before he’d been working in neurobiology, mapping out memory pathways in carp, and to jump from that to an almost metaphysical context of memory as confabulation is a radical break.

In your ‘Letters from the Mount Wilson Observatory’ exhibition, you’ve collected together a variety of eccentric theories and speculations sent by ‘ordinary’ star-gazers to the official astronomers there. Does this suggest another possible source of scientific inspiration - the thoughts of a ‘lay’ public?

The wonderful thing about those letters is that they are from people looking at the big issues in life. They’re not afraid of the big questions: who we are, where we come from, the nature of existence and the universe. A lot of these views are pretty non-standard, but it’s their own view, created out of their experience of being alive.

The folk or peasant remedies that comprise ‘Tell the Bees’ also represent an archaic version of popular science that freely merges rational procedures of trial and error with elements of allegory and magical thinking, yet today it is their plausibility which surprises - the way in which they anticipated such crucial medical developments as inoculation, Penicillin and of course the current fascination with homeopathy.

This is collective knowledge whereas the Mt. Wilson letters are very individual. I think that ideas, just like proteins, tend to be rougher in their singular form, more jagged; once they become beliefs that are held by lots of people, the rough edges tend to smooth out. With ‘Tell the Bees,’ we are talking about generations, thousands of years. In the Mt. Wilson exhibition, the information tends to be much more immediate.

There is a point in the Cabinet of Wonders book where Lawrence Wechsler jokingly reassures you that he will not be writing any sort of expos√© on the museum. ‘After all,’ he says, ‘it wasn’t as if (you) were some kind of imminent danger to the body politic’. But you reply: ‘Oh I don’t know, I like to think that I am’. Would you agree that there is a revolutionary theme to much of what is shown at the MJT?

I think that’s fair to say, but it’s also revolutionary in the other sense of wanting to get beyond the limitations of the mainstream, or a tyrannically imposed world-view. We look at the resilience of individual thought and initiative to recreate the world anew, like all those people writing to Mount Wilson. I don’t want to stress a cult of individuality because I believe in the opposite of that as well, in collaboration, but it is the non-rigid approach that interests me. It’s the part of life that stays alive or that goes into rigor mortis from too much comfort, too much fear, from having too much at stake. One becomes afraid to move, things just get bigger and bigger, they just continue to accumulate.

In his poem Alexandria, 641 AD, Jorge Luis Borges has the Caliph Omar burn down the Library of Alexandria as a kind of generous offering to the people. He says: ‘If of all these books / None remained, men would, once again / Engender each page, each line…’ This is one solution to the problem of intellectual stasis.

I don’t know; it implies that there really is no loss, that ultimately everything is contained in our genetic structure, and that we can recreate ourselves, rewrite ourselves, our knowledge and history, and I don’t think that’s true. I mean, all of the material in the Mayan library is irrevocably lost. I’m still waiting for that to be reconstituted.

He’s maybe suggesting that people keep writing the same books over and over.

But there is loss, and that is a core notion of the degeneration of knowledge - that we’re getting farther and farther away from true knowledge, which is essentially the word of God. But you can’t think of the degeneration of knowledge in and of itself, because at the same time there’s another dynamic going on that has to do with the expansion of knowledge.

The burning library could simply be a metaphor for forgetting, that in order to write the new books we have to get rid of the old ones somehow. Then again, it could be about revolution and the violence involved in replacing one way of thinking with another.

Right. In the 19th century there was this great movement called Catastrophism that was a direct result of the clash between developing geological understanding - looking at geological strata and what they seemed to suggest about time - and biblical notions of history. There is a quote we’ve used by a man named John Sumner that says that while we’re required to believe that the world came into existence in biblical times, six thousand or however many years ago, we’re not required to believe that there weren’t many, many worlds before that. This would account for the age of the geological strata they were finding. Each of these previous eras was ended by a catastrophe. Our most recent memory is of the Noachian deluge, but that was just one among many, and the world began itself anew time and time again.

Do you have a similar theory of history, a general view of cultural development? Sometimes it seems as if you’re talking about an eternal return of the same, and at other times you take a more progressive approach.

I don’t think that those positions are necessarily opposed to each other. I think it’s very much possible, even necessary, to understand both at the same time. I don’t want to make any prescription as to how to do that. Because looking for knowledge is really looking for something that people have known in the past; but at the same time, I do have a sense of the progression of thought or consciousness.

An evolution?

Well, this is very tricky. You can’t conceive of one possibility without seeing its opposite at the same time. That’s the problem with talking about this sort of thing - you can get into a position that you can’t get out of. I mean, we are interested in all those questions but we try not to look at them directly; we prefer to look at them out of the corner of our eye. It seems that peripheral vision is just more productive. I think that the goal of the museum is to allow people to draw their own conclusions based on the information we provide, and not to be very didactic about it. We don’t try to draw any linear narratives between any of these things. That’s a job that a lot of other people do very well, but it’s just not what we do.

Jan Tumlir


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First published in
Issue 39, March-April 1998

by Jan Tumlir

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