Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Wonders

Lawrence Weschler

Read November 2004

I first heard about the Museum of Jurassic Technology (MJT) from Michael Black. ``You have to visit it'', he said. I asked him what it was about. ``Well, it's a bit hard to describe.'' He paused. ``You'll just have to see it and decide for yourself what you think'', he said conclusively.

The Museum's Web site is somewhere between the Jurassic and Gothic. The museum's building is somewhere between a convenience store and a Thai restaurant, partially obscured by a bus stop on a busy Los Angeles street. It's a storefront so easy to miss, it would have been better situated in a strip mall. And as for its collection....

This book is in two parts. The first half, based on a Harper's essay, is a description of the museum and of David Wilson, whose wunderkammer it is. It is less of an experience than visiting the museum itself, owing to the lack of physical immediacy (and the MJT is a very physical museum). But perhaps it is more of an experience in some ways, for I have rarely ever been visited a museum that I felt needed explanation.

The second half of the museum is a meditation on museums and irony (and why those two are deeply intertwined). John Cage's unforgettable Rolywholyover explored this connection; his was an explicit attept to undermine the curator. The MJT takes this many steps further, because it is the curator (if we can call him that—or perhaps he is the discoverer, or maybe even the inventor?) himself doing the undermining. Not surprisingly, Wilson is compared to Borges, that librarian (a kind of curator) of Buenos Aires.

As a side note—and it would be only fitting if this were true—there's a chance the book inspired one of the museum's exhibits. The book briefly discusses Athanasius Kircher, relating him to the museum's style and content, but not explicitly mentioning a Kircher exhibit. When I visited the MJT in November 2004, there was now a characteristic display based on Kircher.

I asked the custodian on duty at the MJT how people heard about the place. She mentioned a few articles here and there but, she said, ``Mostly by word of mouth''. Consider this my share.

I can't say much more without either supplying my own interpretation of the museum itself or being so obscure as to make no sense. Read the book, visit the museum. If you can, visit the museum first, then read the book (keeping in mind when it was written)—and you'll be sure to have a good laugh on page 23 (and in many other places). You'll then want to visit it again, book in hand.

Given that this is a book about irony, however, it seems unfortunate that Weschler seems dead-set to rob the museum of some of its magic. Like someone who needs a joke explained, he eagerly rushes out to research every item he sees or reads about. It is true that his research often reveals truth-stranger-than-fiction. But one also can't help but get the sense that Weschler regards Wilson with something less than a full measure of respect, which leaves the reader disturbed. This is another good reason to see the museum before you read the book: lest the latter dispell some of the sense of wonder.

The MJT: You'll just have to see it and decide for yourself what you think.