Mr Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonders

Mr Wilson's Cabinet of Wonders

I recently finished reading Mr Wilson’s cabinet of wonder: Pronged ants, horned humans, mice of toast, and other marvels of Jurassic technology about the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Culver City, California.  The Museum is an eclectic mix of oddities that proprietor David Wilson has collected and personally displayed, the artifacts as with the museum itself are “…guided along as it were a chain of flowers into the mysteries of life.” (Wilson, 2009), which is the quote on the title page of the Museum’s website.  Wilson describes the purpose of the Museum in this way:

“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”…” (Wilson, 2009).

He never goes on to explain just what the title of the museum means in the context of the collection, and it would seem that it doesn’t really matter in the scheme of things.  Perhaps it is whatever you make of it?

Wescheler’s book describes how the author stumbles upon the museum seemingly by accident, and, confused by the strange exhibits there, is inspired to investigate the implausible seeming stories behind them.  He finds that some of the most outrageous exhibits appear to be true, others are fabrications, but the large majority are somewhere in-between, a strange mix of fact and fiction rolled into one.  The museum is a more closely related to the idea of a private cabinet of curiosities than to the factual and scientific idea of public museums that we are used to today.

The Museum of Jurassic Technology seems to owe everything to the eccentricities of its owner David Wilson, who explains in the book:

“I myself tend to be pretty forgetful, so memory’s always been an interest of mine.  For instance, Plato suggests somewhere that memory is like an aviary inside your head, with all these birds flying around, such that you might reach in for a ringdove and accidentally pull out a turtledove instead” (Wilson as cited in Wescheler, 1995, p.33)

Going by the book it would seem that this is a very apt description for the marvellously unexpected way that museum exhibits are put together.  Where regular museums work on bringing carefully research facts to inform their audiences, The Museum of Jurassic Technology has really captured the sense of wonder that has led people to make collections, preserve oddities, and marvel at the mysteries of the world in curious awe.

“The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science.  Whoever does not know it can no longer wonder, no longer marvel, is as good as dead, and his eyes are dimmed.” (Einstein as cited in Weschler, 1995, p. 125)

What sets this museum apart, is the idea that the ‘truth’ is just one facet of the origins of the exhibits, by far the more interesting way of looking at them is in terms of the mysterious.

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