“No one may ever have the same knowledge again…”
~ Museum of Jurassic Technology
October 7th, 2012, about 1:00pm
Coming in from the harsh sounds and bright sunlight of a particularly commercial block of Venice Blvd, I and my companion were immediately appropriated from our Los Angeles context for use in the dimly lit, heavily odored, totally engrossing world of the Museum of Jurassic Technology. To say that this jolt was unwelcome or even the last we would experience that afternoon would be to completely misrepresent our time in the museum. We, as patrons, were allowed to follow our whim as we flowed haphazardly from one room into the next, sometimes blinded by light and other times left in the dark, searching for some sort of logic—for direction. However, this direction is exactly what the MJT shuns.
Some exhibits in the MJT were profoundly charming. A set of ten microscopes in one long, narrow room revealed a series of beautiful micro mosaics which were crafted from individual scales of butterfly wings. In another room, delicate radiographs of flowers glowed with incandescent beauty which could be seen through vision skewing glasses. Yet, most of the exhibits perplexed me, rendered me confused and curious. Sometimes a painting was referred to in a label which could not be found; sometimes a telephone remained mute or played three overlapping voices that were almost unintelligible. Every time I thought I began to understand where the story, the narrative of the MJT was heading, I discovered I was mistaken.
In an exhibit of found objects from a trailer park, I searched in vain for labels to let me know the significance of the displayed objects. Where were they from? Who owned them? Who found them? These were clearly questions I was not meant to ask. It took me the better part of the first floor to realize why I was fighting this museum, asking all sorts of questions which were never answered: things I assigned significance to were of no meaning to the story this museum was trying to tell.
By overwhelming the viewer with so many objects, the curator (author?) was only telling me what he believed to be important, the story she wanted to tell me and nothing more. The best example of this strong curatorial voice occurred exactly twelve minutes into a story about a jungle animal who could appear in completely enclosed spaces–the fabled deprong mori. It was clear that the voice was talking about a bat of some sort, but never once did the narrator confirm this assumption. My companion suddenly exclaimed, “I just want to know what it IS and how it got in that room!” But these simple questions of why and how where not the point; the point was that we were not in control of the story, just of how we reacted to it.
Leaving the MJT my companion and I were shocked to discover that more than two hours had passed since we paid our (very reasonable) entry fee, and that our stomachs were empty and our heads ached. On the drive home we kept returning to (obsessing over) two questions that the museum seemed to be asking.
First of all, what role does authority play in the museum narrative? Museums are assumed truth-tellers; any falsity is simply a mistake. However, between my knowledge of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century European culture and my companion’s knowledge of both the history of science and Latin, I am certain that some of the materials in the MJT were unequivocally wrong. When paired with the odd style of labeling certain exhibits, particularly one which presents folk cures as present-day fact, I began to feel as though this museum was untrustworthy. It forced me to be more cognizant of how readily I accept information when it is presented in a certain style—well lit, evenly spaced, historicized, and white—and how easy it is to dismiss information when presented otherwise, something which will follow me in future museum outings.
Secondly, what role does my level of education play in my interaction with this museum, in particular, and all museums, in general? Would someone who knew nothing of history be able to recognize questionable assertions in the exhibits? Would someone who does not read Latin be able to appreciate that Kirscher was not able to conjugate his verbs correctly?
These two questions, in addition to the museum itself, get to the most powerful message I returned to sunny Venice Blvd with: a museum can only present its collections to the public, it is up to the individual patrons to approach the material with their unique background and perspective.
The title of my favorite exhibit in the Museum of Jurassic Technology, Letters to Mt. Wilson, perfectly summarizes what I was attempting with this all-encompassing review as well as the museum’s purpose: “No one may ever have the same knowledge again.” The voice, the collection, the experience of this wonderful, if confusing, museum will never be the same from one patron and one minute to the next.
The Museum of Jurassic Technology