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Child’s Play

Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder

by Lawrence Weschler
Vintage, 172 pp., $12.00 (paper)

Lawrence Weschler begins with the stink ant (where, he wants us to ask, is this going to lead?). Sometimes the stink ant of the Cameroonian rain forests inhales the spore of a fungus, which invades its brain and drives it crazy. For the first time it leaves its natural habitat on the forest floor and climbs the stalks of vines and ferns, up and up, until it finally fixes itself by sinking its mandibles into the plant, and so dies. The fungus continues to consume the ant’s brain, and after a fortnight or so a spike erupts from the ant’s head, with an orange tip from which more spores rain down to infect more ants and begin the cycle yet again.

The stink ant is one of the exhibits in the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Culver City, Los Angeles, the brainchild of one David Wilson, and “Inhaling the Spore” is the title of the first half of Weschler’s two-part description and meditation upon this peculiar place. As with so much else in the museum, and a good deal else in his book, it is unclear just what the significance of this is: Inhaling the spore stands as a symbol of something, but of what? Aspiration, transformation, the imaginative capacity of eccentricity?

But let us follow Weschler a little further as he describes some more of the museum’s displays. Geoffrey Sonnabend (“the great midcentury American neurophysiologist”) inhaled his spore after hearing at a resort near the Iguazú Falls, in Argentina, a Lieder recital given by Madalena Delani (“the great Romanian-American vocalist”), who suffered from Korsakoff’s syndrome, which destroys short-term memory. This occasion inspired his theory of obliscence (that memory is an illusion and forgetting the outcome of all experience). The Museum of Jurassic Technology has a diorama of the Iguazú Falls, a reconstruction of Sonnabend’s study, a line drawing of his model of obliscence (including a “perverse atmonic disc” and “cone of confabulation”), and an Acoustiguide which explains his theory in what Weschler tellingly calls “the same bland, slightly unctuous voice you’ve heard in every museum slide show…the reassuringly measured voice of unassailable institutional authority.”

Another display honors the collector Charles Gunther, whose treasures included the table on which the Appomattox Surrender was signed and a snake’s skin sloughed off by the serpent in the Garden of Eden. There is a scale model of Noah’s Ark. There is an exhibition of letters sent to the Mount Wilson Observatory: a woman in New Zealand reveals that the US government has hushed up her recipe for transmuting silver into gold; a man in California sends a demonstration purporting to show, by a hopelessly inadequate argument, that the earth is not in fact flat and that it even goes round the sun. There is a model of Plato’s theory of memory. There is an audioguide which explains Donald R. Griffith’s method of trapping bats by erecting five solid-lead walls, each twenty feet high and two hundred feet long, in a South American forest. There are the microminiature sculptures by the Armenian violinist Hagop Sandaldjian: figures of Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, and John Paul II, each carved from human hairs or motes of dust and glue and exhibited in or on the eye of a needle.

There is also a vitrine commemorating “a turn-of-the-century French novelist named Marcel Proust,” containing a plate of madeleines, from one of which a single bite has been taken. Proust’s spectral presence in this context might set one thinking of his friend and antagonist Robert de Montesquiou, a collector and fabricator of odd curios, among them a tortoise whose shell was inlaid with turquoises, a glass cupboard within which glimmered the pastel shades of a hundred cravats, and a handkerchief stained with the tears of Lamartine; but what it sets going in Weschler’s head is the jingle “madeleines, Madalena Delani”—could this, he implies, be the source of the lady’s name?

Weschler writes an article about the museum in Harper’s and provokes an excited correspondence. One reader writes to say that if each of Griffith’s assistants had carried fifty pounds of lead into the jungle, there would need to have been 190,280 of them. Another draws the author’s attention to the centaurs recently excavated at Volos in Thessaly (a photograph of a centaur skeleton is helpfully supplied). Several correspondents alert him to the Hokes Archives at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville (originally founded in London by Everett Ormsby Hokes, 1864-1939). But if Weschler has a twist in his tale, it is that rather more of the things in the museum—not of course all—prove genuine than he has encouraged us to suppose. No Hokes, you might say. The stink ant does exist; there is a bat expert called Donald R. Griffin (not Griffith), though he had nothing to do with lead walls in the jungle; the nutcases who wrote to the Mount Wilson Observatory are authentic nutcases.

Meanwhile Weschler himself has found some clues which point toward Oxford. Booklets available at the museum relating to its exhibits purport to be published by the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Information Press at 9091 Divide Place, West Covina, California OX2 6DP. That is the zip code for Oxford University Press. The booklets are published “in cooperation with the Visitors to the Museum by the Delegates of the Press”; but it is Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum that is governed by Visitors, and Oxford University Press that has Delegates. The Society’s press claims to have branches all over the world, listed in a typographical pattern which parodies that found in Oxford books: “Billings Bogota Bhopal…,” the list reads, “Mal en Beg Mal en Mor [two villages in Donegal, allegedly]…Teheran…Terre Haute…”—and so on, and on. Well, why Oxford?

And of course a broader question: What are we to make of the Museum of Jurassic Technology altogether? Weschler, who can be as elusive as his subject, seems to have two ideas: that it is all a postmodern game; and that it is not. In postmodern mood, he implies that the museum teasingly dissolves the boundaries between truth and fiction, inviting us to doubt the voice of authority and question if we really know what we think we know; it suggests that truth may be stranger, more improbable, than many fictions (and perhaps that fiction can be more banal than much fact). Everything seems to be what it is, and yet something seems to be wrong. But Weschler is also struck by what he calls Wilson’s “ironylessness.” This raises the disconcerting possibility that the Museum of Jurassic Technology may be an extremely elaborate joke played by someone entirely lacking a sense of humor.

Yet that does not feel quite right either, for in some sense Wilson seems to be wholly serious. Marcia Tucker, director of a museum in New York, notes “the literal-minded way in which he…seemingly openly answers all your questions, his never ever cracking or letting you know that, or even whether, he’s in on the joke.” In conversation with Wilson’s wife, Weschler praises him as a master of performance art. “What makes you think it’s a performance?” she retorts. “David believes all this stuff.” Marcia Tucker sees the MJT as “like a museum, a critique of museums, and a celebration of museums—all rolled into one.”

Of those three elements, it is “critique of museums” that we might question. For the key, I fancy, may be to regard David Wilson less as a ludic postmodern parodist than as a child playing at museums. Child’s play, after all, when the adults are being imitated, is solemn, very grown-up in tone, and entirely without irony. Wilson’s inventions, all too unfunny if they are meant to be funny, fall into place and acquire a certain charm once we treat them as make-believe: how nice it would be if his museum had Visitors, as the Ashmolean does, if his press had offices all over the world, if that booklet were really “Vol. IV, No. 7” of a large learned series. Wilson would disagree with Louis MacNeice, whose poem “The Other Wing” deplores the way in which the bright crazy gaiety of Greek mythology is subdued by the modern museum’s portentous solicitude:

   hence these muted
Miles of parquet, these careful lights,
This aquarium of conditioned air,
This ne plus ultra.

But Wilson loves all that. Asked by Weschler what first got him fascinated by museums, he replies, “Well, their museumness. How dark and hushed they were inside, the oak-and-glass cases, the sense of being in these repositories amongst all those old things.” And he adores the labels on exhibits. He is particularly proud that one of the most arcane captions in his own museum, for the ringnot sloth, is taken verbatim from the caption for a similar exhibit at the Field Museum in Chicago (just like the grown-ups). Weschler quotes it:

Prehistoric man must have known the extraordinary Ringnot Sloth, although none of the numerous cave paintings (such as those at Lascaux and Font-de-Gaume in Southern France) appear to represent it. It was probably extinct by Roman times for, as Richard Owne noted in 1846, “The total silence of Caesar and Tacitus respecting such remarkable animals renders their existence and subsequent extirpation by the savage natives a matter of highest improbability.” On the other hand, references to “Grimmer Schelch” in the Nibelungen Songs would seem to indicate that this animal lived recently enough to be mentioned in this bit of folklore.

This does indeed have an odd, accidental poetry—Sir Thomas Browne redivivus in the Midwest.

Wilson’s presence, Weschler maintains, and even his physical appearance, are part of the museum’s effect. His wife recalls that when she first met him, she thought him like a gnome: “This old, small man. It was scary: he was only nineteen, but he was kind of ageless—or rather aged.” But love is blind, and the photograph in Weschler’s book suggests, if anything, the opposite conclusion. Though he is now over fifty, Wilson’s face looks extraordinarily young; he wears a beard without mustache, Amish-style, which looks rather as though it has been stuck on with spirit gum. His smile is earnest and guileless, eager rather than humorous. Beard apart, one could easily imagine his figure on the campus at MIT, sporting a “Nerd Pride” button. From Weschler we learn that he was born in 1946, the son of a Denver ear, nose, and throat doctor, that he studied “urban entomology” at Kalamazoo College, lived for a while in a remote cabin in the Colorado mountains, and did specialized camera work for a living in California before he set up the museum in a storefront in Culver City. He acquired several collections that had been put together by others—just how he did so remains obscure—and added exhibits of his own. Enthusiasm, a touch of eccentricity, an infantine sense of wonder—these do seem to be the museum’s qualities.

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