2010-10-18

The Museum Of Jurassic Technology: A Study In Presentation As Knowledge

Housed in a small building on Venice Boulevard, where Palms and Culver City meet we find the Museum Of Jurassic Technology (MJT).  Although that building is often described as "nondescript", it's actually rather interesting in its own right.

The Museum Of Jurassic Technology
 This narrow frontage of this building gives a definite European feel.  The inner pedestrian zones of many small to medium size towns in Europe, where they seem to be standard, often include buildings very much like this one.  From 1992 through 2006, the MJT operated a Tochtermuseum ("Daughter Museum") in Hagen, Germany.  This building would not be out of place in the Fußgängerzone of some German city. 

That is, except for the curious decorative fountain design that extends over much of the lower facade--and also the  curious  outdoor vitrine, next to the door, which puts us on notice that this is no ordinary museum.


This display is not explained.   But then, why not display a vase behind some glass, surmounted by about thirty dead moths?   In saying this, we don't mean to disparage the curators at the MJT.  To the contrary, the entire operation is a single very large work of conceptual art, of which the selection, arrangement, and mounting of the displays are all constituent parts.  In this regard it is highly successful, making the point that nearly all of us will will stop to peer intently at almost anything, as long as it is placed behind glass and moodily lit by a tiny spotlight.  In this, we, too become part of the concept behind the Museum itself.

Now would be a good time to stop and consider the Museum's stated mission: From their website:
  
Like a coat of two colors, the Museum serves dual functions. On the one hand the Museum provides the academic community with a specialized repository of relics and artifacts from the Lower Jurassic, with an emphasis on those that demonstrate unusual or curious technological qualities. On the other hand the Museum serves the general public by providing the visitor a hands-on experience of "life in the Jurassic"...

Notice, we get not just ordinary, run-of-the-mill artifacts from the Lower Jurassic, but only those that exhibit curious or unusual technological qualities.  Of all the possible Lower Jurassic technological relics they could have put on display, they have selected the absolute best...well, you get the idea.


Let's go inside.


From the beginning, the overriding visual impression is one of darkness.  Even the small entrance hall, in which a receptionist holds forth, requesting a modest and voluntary donation, is dark, although the numerous books and other souvenirs for sale are brightly spotlit, evidently by tiny LED lamps.  


After making our donation and proceeding further inside, we encounter first an explanation of the history of museums, and how the MJT fits into this larger scheme.  The MJT traces its origins to what it terms the earliest and most comprehensive of all natural history museums--the Ark of Noah.   The narration goes on to describe the early collections of "wonders" accumulated by wealthy enthusiasts in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.   Often these early collections were characterized by their generalist nature, and featured works of fine art side-by-side with rare animal fossils, mineral specimens, and other artifacts of the natural world.  Incidentally, this practice continued through the founding of some of today's major public museums.  The Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County is a good example, having been founded in 1910 as the L.A. Museum of Science, History and Art.  LACMA didn't come into existence until 1965, when most of the artworks were moved to the new facility at Hancock Park.  At the MJT this generalist tradition continues.


The attribution to Noah is surprising in itself, because the West Side of greater Los Angeles is not known for being a hotbed of Biblical fundamentalism.  And again, it's difficult to accept the notion that the Museum's curators actually believe in the literal truth of the Noah legend; instead we are confronted with the idea of it:  Wouldn't be compelling if this were true, and if this Museum could trace its origins to the Ark?  We're not saying it is true, but--.

We notice that the general darkness prevails throughout.  This, too, is part of the concept, because it reinforces the notion that the wall displays and vitrines contain objects of incredible rarity and significance.   This is the way that world-class natural history museums mount priceless gemstones.  

Most of the wall displays are dark until the visitor presses a "start" button; then several objects are spotlighted in sequence as an audio program is played through a telephone handset.  At any given moment during the narration, you can only see the one or two objects then being described.  The first such display is devoted to a  supposed legend among  a certain tribe living along the Caribbean coast of South America.  During an 1872 expedition to the region, we learn,  the natives told explorer Bernard Maston of the "Piercing Devil"--an unseen flying creature which could penetrate solid objects.  In 1952 Donald Griffith visited the area, having designed an elaborate pentagonal trap constructed mostly of solid lead.  In August of that year he succeeded in trapping the first ever Myotis lucifungus encased in solid lead.  (In fact, M. lucifungus is none other than the  little brown bat, the most common bat of North America--and unknown further south than Northern Mexico.)


Bernard Maston and the Demon Piercing Bat
As native legend would have it, one of these creatures pierced the hand of a child, who bore no wound or trace of the encounter.

Child's hands pierced by the Demon Bat
 Thereafter the child had the ability to heal superficial skin disorders by the laying on of hands.

As we continue through the museum, we find that most of the exhibits seem chosen to work best in the general dark scheme of things.  Looking at this iridescent scarab...


we behold  a glowing thing set off by the surrounding blackness; the same is true of micro-mosaics constructed from the scales of butterfly wings by Henry Dalton.




Each of the dozen or so insect-scale micro-mosaics on display is mounted under a low-powered microscope, thus assuring that the viewing experience is unsullied by the distractions of other objects in the room.


A small gallery devoted to the technology of antique miniature theater effects is similar.  Several tiny stages and prosceniums are ranged around the room to demonstrate how special effects like calm and stormy waters, thunder, and the like were simulated.  As we might expect, each one is lighted with tiny spotlights that simulate, in miniature, how it was done in the full sized theater.


It's Miniature Theater!
Perhaps most extraordinary is the gallery devoted to one Geoffrey Sonnabend, a professor of neurophysiology at Northwestern University.  In his three-volume work, Obliscence - Theories Of Forgetting And The Problem Of Matter he elaborated his basic notion that memory is an illusion and forgetting is inevitable.  Our illusion of memory is nothing more than our perception of the decay of experience.  He reduced this to a diagram,


The Cone Of Obliscence and the Plane Of Experience
in which the Plane of Experience passes through the Cone of Obliscence, for all experiences in the lives of sentient beings.   The Plane should be understood as finite in this context, rather than the boundless and infinite plane as conceived in classical geometry.  The Plane, according to Sonnabend, passes laterally through the Cone; while the leading ("obverse") edge is passing through the Cone the being is experiencing the event.  After that the being remembers the event until the trailing ("perverse") edge of the plane passes through the cone.  After that the being's memory of the event is illusory.  Whatever one may think of these ideas, one can't help wonder if the memory of things experienced long ago is really the memory of memories, rather than of the actual experiences themselves. 

This last bit reminds us of how Tommy Wilhelm must have felt in Sieze The Day, after a long day of listening to Dr. Tamkin spinning his humbug theories of mind and humanity.


Despite our overall impression that the Museum Of Jurassic Technology is nothing more or less than a manufactured experience, we can't help feeling fortunate to have wandered through this cabinet of wonders.   Cone of obliscence?  Who knows.  But the Plane Of Experience for this museum visit will take a long, long time to pass through the cone.


1 comment:

  1. What an interesting blog, introduced by a thought-provoking photo. The unusual wall painting of the dwellings is also a strangely modern interpretation. Something like this hieroglyphic view of a park by Swiss painter Paul Klee, http://EN.WahooArt.com/A55A04/w.nsf/OPRA/BRUE-8LT475.
    The image can be seen at wahooart.com who can supply you with a canvas print of it.

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