Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder: Pronged Ants, Horned Humans, Mice on Toast, and Other Marvels of Jurassic Technology, by Lawrence Weschler
Vintage Books (1995)
“[A] small nondescript storefront operation located along the main commercial drag of downtown Culver City in the middle of West Los Angeles’s endless pseudo-urban sprawl: the Museum of Jurassic Technology, according to the fading blue banner facing the street.” Lawrence Weschler, a staff writer for The New Yorker, describes the otherwise anonymous location for one of the oddest museums on the American landscape. He details the exhibits of the Museum and the life of its creator, David Wilson, in Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder: Pronged Ants, Horned Humans, Mice on Toast, and Other Marvels of Jurassic Technology.
After reading this book, I had to ask, “Where has this book been all my life?” Despite majoring in Public History, the intellectual adjunct to academic history focusing on museums, historical societies, and the like, I had never encountered this book. Even with my Museum Studies classes taken at the Milwaukee Public Museum this was never on the mandatory reading list. It should be.
For an otherwise short book – the paperback text is only 108 pages, albeit with a lengthy section of endnotes – there is a lot to unpack. Weschler divides the book into two sections. The first, “Inhaling the Spore,” is a lengthy narrative tour through the Museum of Jurassic Technology. The second, “Cerebral Growth,” is a combination biography of David Wilson and the history of modern museums. The second sections explores the digressive route Wilson took to eventually become head of his own idiosyncratic museum. This digression is combined with a digressive exploration of the kunst- and wunderkammern (German for “art- and wonder cabinets”).
Wonder cabinets became popular around the sixteenth and seventeenth century. During this time (early modern Europe in academic parlance) Europe experienced an extended period of culture shock due to the discoveries made through contact and exploration with North America. The culture shock was coupled with a revival of classical learning and a fascinating with esoteric and occult knowledge. Curiosity cabinets reflected this simultaneous combination of global exploration and interior contemplation. Prior to the time, Europe was dominated by a medieval mindset. The curiosity cabinet fell out of favor when the Enlightenment popularized a more scientific and rational mentality.
Granted, the statement above is a broad-brush generalization. Weschler also concedes that despite the new people, places, and things discovered during early modern times, it was also a period of cruelty and barbarism.
All this is a roundabout introduction to what David Wilson is attempting with his Museum of Jurassic Technology. In his own way, he has created a modern curiosity cabinet. A tiny jewel box museum mixing fantasy and fact. Wilson’s brilliance comes from the Museum’s admixing of parody, homage, and critique of modern museum practice. A visitor can’t readily distinguish between a factual exhibit or one created by Wilson’s imagination. He has mimicked to the voice of Institutional Authority with incredible precision. In his interactions with visitors and at museum conferences, he never “breaks character.” Everything is done with a straight face and with the utmost serious. (Contrast this with The Church of the SubGenius, which is a parody religion, except when it isn’t.)
After reading the book, I realized it was one of my top favorite non-fiction works. Unlike fiction, non-fiction is so broad and varied, it is hard to label something an all-time favorite. Like the House on the Rock and the Salt Lake City Temple, the Museum of Jurassic Technology will go on my list for an American Odd Pilgrimage.
The Museum of Jurassic Technology is yet another example of California as American laboratory of weirdness and idiosyncrasy.