As the Monty Python folks would say … and now for something completely different!
Or completely strange. And completely wonderful.
Here’s some good, old-fashioned museum homage. To a 21st century Ajeeb Ghar/Wonder House. An Ajeeb Ghar to beat all Ajeeb Ghars: the odd and endlessly intriguing Museum of Jurassic Technology.
As a museum, its a unique one-off. Nothing you’ve seen or are likely to see in the 21st century American museum world quite prepares you for this. You arrive at a tiny, unprepossessing storefront off Venice Boulevard in L.A. You look around, slightly baffled, even though the banner announces that you’re at the right place. You knock. But once you step inside, its magic. You are transported, “guided along as it were a chain of flowers into the mysteries of life” (as the opening quote from Charles Vincent Peale suggests) into a dimly lit museum space that seems oddly out of sync with the bustle outside, dedicated not to reason and certainty and what we know, but to imagination and uncertainty and what we don’t know.
It is also dedicated to Wonder, to that feeling of slack-jawed awe and admiration that happens when we engage completely, gobsmacked, with a beautiful object or inspiring exhibit. Wonder, according to Stephen Greenblatt, is that mode of engaging with the museum world where the beauty of the object or artwork stops you dead in your tracks. The Museum of Jurassic Technology is a place where pioneering American museum-maker Charles Peale’s idea of ‘Rational Amusement’ thrives along with the mix of Art, Science and Magic found in Renaissance-era wonder cabinets. Where exquisitely wrought exhibits have been lovingly created on themes as wide-ranging as Rotten Luck (a collection of magician Ricky Jay’s disintegrating dice), Folk Remedies that didn’t work (beautifully taxidermied dead mice on toast), and a diorama on the theory of forgetting and remembering (complete with a reconstruction of Proust’s madeleine). Where the history of natural history museums and curiosity cabinets is as much on display as anything else. Where you are likely to hear laughter, or see tears, or rapt engagement from the curious viewer who wanders in from the street. But not boredom, never boredom. Where you are more than likely to leave the museum transformed.
The museum’s founder David Wilson called it an ionisphere of ideas that had to be realized. We call it the quintessential Ajeeb Ghar for our times. May it live long and prosper. May it continue to pour old museum wine into new bottles. May it enchant, delight and inspire wonder across the world and by example. A place like this needs no further context or explanation. Just continued attention. And respect.
So without further ado, here are links to:
The museum: Museum of Jurassic Technology
The book about the museum: Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder by Lawrence Weschloss
The article about the field trip to the museum: Inhaling the Spore, Harper’s Magazine
The film about the book about the museum: Inhaling the Spore: A Journey Through the Museum of Jurassic Technology Sympathetic museums and Ajeeb ghars: Page from MJT