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.
Wonder indeed becomes one of Weschler’s central themes, as he develops the notion, encouraged by Wilson himself, that the MJT is the modern descendant of the Wunderkammern, or cabinets of curiosities, which proliferated in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. These were usually collections of natural history specimens—skeletons, stuffed animals, fetuses. Often they included freaks and deformities—a horn that had grown from a woman’s head, a cat with two heads, a lizard with two tails; sometimes there were ethnographical artifacts, brought from distant lands. Gathered magpie fashion, these cabinets were eclectic, unsystematic, and sometimes a bit gruesome.
A label on one of Wilson’s exhibits refers to the most historically important of these, the Ark at Lambeth in London, a collection formed in the seventeenth century by a father and son, both named John Tradescant. Most of “Tradescant’s rarities” were acquired by Elias Ashmole, who donated them to Oxford University. Seeking a name for his collection, he called it a “museum”: it is the first use of the word in the sense that has since gone round the world. Weschler unearths a scholarly tome on Tradescant’s Ark, and there, on the verso of the title page, he reads, “© Ashmolean Museum, Oxford 1983 Published in cooperation with the Visitors of the Ashmolean by the Delegates of the Press.” The press’s address follows, complete with its zip code, OX2 6DP, and a list of its overseas offices, a litany of place names from all four corners of the globe. Aha!
But is Weschler right to see David Wilson as a Tradescant for our time? He suggests that “perhaps what he has done is to tap into the premodern wellsprings of the postmodern temper.” This strikes me as ingenious but quite wrong. For the postmodernist’s tone is knowing, ironic, detached; his habitual inclination is de haut en bas. The seventeenth-century collectors, on the other hand, were trusting enquirers in a world where so much was unknown; their wonders were wonderful precisely because, however strange, they were indeed true; essential to their project was real belief, not a make-believe of belief.
Weschler turns to Stephen Greenblatt’s Marvelous Possessions, which argues that wonder was “the central figure in the initial European response to the New World, the decisive emotional and intellectual experience in the presence of radical difference.” Greenblatt holds that this attitude was itself new, a rejection of “the classical model of mature, balanced detachment.” But on the contrary, wonder is at the very heart of the classical world’s own project of enquiry. When Herodotus, not only the father of history but the first man in Europe to write prose as literature, surveys foreign peoples, he repeatedly asks himself what wonders they exhibit. In the case of one people, he begins by observing that they have no wonders; it is as though this is the first item on his checklist. In a world full of mysterious races, inexplicable facts, and exotic curiosities—lodestones, Scythians who eat their grandmothers, negroes with black sperm, ants that dig for gold—wonder is not an alternative to scholarly or scientific inquiry but its very essence; it is the desire to investigate the world and understand it.
Here the great gulf is not between the ancient world and the Renaissance but between the Renaissance and ourselves. Once the whole earth is explored and mapped and man is more or less master of his environment, there is a kind of wise wonder that is no longer possible. What has been open-mindedness becomes folly, whereas in earlier ages incredulity was no more scientific than its opposite. Told about the giraffe, Dr. Johnson could dismiss it as an obvious imposture. And if Shakespeare did himself believe in anthropophagi and men whose heads grow beneath their shoulders, that does not necessarily make him gullible: they might well seem more probable than the claim that there is a continent on the other side of the world in which large animals jump about on their hind legs carrying their young in pockets. But we moderns, like the clever men at Oxford, know all that there is to be knowed; we are hard to deceive or surprise.
By the same token, the exotic has become an ever rarer commodity. On the same block as the Museum of Jurassic Technology, Weschler observes, you can find a Thai restaurant, an India Sweets and Spices mart, a Blockbuster video store, a forensics laboratory, Manuel’s Auto Body Shop, and a Hare Krishna temple—a cabinet of wonders displayed in the open air. In a society as multicultural as Los Angeles, not only have the peoples and beliefs of distant lands ceased to be strange, but you do not have to go into a museum to encounter them.
There are two species of wonder still available to us which grow out of the Herodotean spirit but which are not identical to it. One aspect of Herodotus’ search for wonders is an interest in oddities, an attitude of mind which can easily develop into a fascination with grotesques, mutations, lunatics. Here wonder becomes morally ambiguous; it begins to shade toward prurience and contempt. A streak of morbidity is detectable in several of the Renaissance Wunderkammern. The Museum of Jurassic Technology shares their interest in oddity, though happily without the dubious overtones, for Wilson seems incapable of scorn or condescension; he has himself inhaled the spore. One frequent visitor to the museum speaks of what he can only describe as “a respect for local beauty.”
The quest for beauty suggests another development of the Herodotean outlook. Wonder can direct itself to what is abnormal or remote, but also to what is usual and near at hand. Four centuries after Herodotus, Lucretius observes how marvelous the sky would appear if we were now seeing it for the first time; but our eyes have become dulled by familiarity. Part of his mission is to refresh the eye and revivify experience. A generation later, Virgil suffuses his Georgics with the sense that we can see the familiar as strange and the ordinary as marvelous. What a wonder is the art of grafting—the fruits of one tree growing from the trunk of another—and yet it is part of the common business of farming. In later times scientists especially have been stirred by the marvelousness of the simple reality around us. Weschler fittingly quotes two examples: Faraday declared, “Nothing is too wonderful to be true”; and Einstein considered that a sense of the mysterious was “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.”
When Wilson exhibits collections of objects made by people living in trailer parks—out of cups, tinfoil, lights from Christmas trees—he too may be joining in the act of celebrating the ordinary (though with almost anyone else one would suspect mockery). Yet when it comes to enjoying and wondering at the world we know and its inhabitants, I cannot quite resist the thought that there is a better Museum of Jurassic Technology—certainly more Jurassic, and perhaps no less technological—a mere quarter of a mile from where I am writing in Oxford. I am thinking not of the Ashmolean, which has evolved into a distinguished but conventional museum of art and antiquities, but of what are strictly two institutions housed within one building: the University Museum (for natural history) and the Pitt-Rivers Museum (for anthropology).
When you pass through the High Victorian portals, you first find yourself in an enormous room, where are displayed, as in most natural history museums, a number of skeletons—a dinosaur (literally Jurassic), an elephant, a whale, and (on a much smaller scale) the dodo which inspired a scene in Alice in Wonderland. But the special charm of this great luminous space lies in the way in which the architecture itself mimics the objects it encloses, for the building appears as the skeleton of a gothic cathedral, a forest of columns, foliage capitals, pointed arches, and vaulting—medievalism complete and confident, except that it is all executed in cast iron and glass, more spindly and attenuated than stone could be, with air and light filtering between the slender metal spans. The multiplied rows of columns, bursting into iron leaves and flowers at their summits, and from there launching more girders upward, like palm fronds, toward the glittering, transparent roof, seem like an angular, frozen woodland, at once mechanical and ghostly, bare ruined choirs where no birds could ever have sung, unless perhaps those golden ones which once twittered on the branches of a bronze tree in the palace of Constantine Porphyrogenitus, Emperor of Byzantium.
The space is enclosed at the sides by two rows of gothic arches, stone this time, one above the other, like a monastic cloister; as an accurate reproduction of thirteenth-century style, they have the historicist character of most museum architecture, resonant with that voice of institutional authority which Weschler has heard in so many such places. And yet these lines of columns are not only part of the building that contains the museum’s holdings, they are part of the contents, for each column is made of a different marble, and together they form the university’s geological collection. In front of them, on pedestals attached to the walls, stand statues of great scientists—Hippocrates, Galileo, Darwin, Aristotle—and again one has a bemused sense of not knowing what is collection and what container. Carved out of the same buff-colored stone from which the walls are made, the statues seem to be part of the museum’s ornamental casing, and yet as reconstructions of interesting dead mammals they seem at one with the stuffed seals and bandicoots, the elephant and the whale.
This museum’s collection, as such, is nothing out of the ordinary—it could be matched, and perhaps bettered, in dozens of places—but what makes a visit so extraordinary an experience is the sense that the building itself has become an element of the display, not for the reason that it is, like the Louvre or the Uffizi, architecturally remarkable in itself (though as a matter of fact it is of some distinction) but because of a blurring of the boundaries between the housing and the objects housed.
A door at the back leads into another vast room, some sixty feet high, with cast-iron galleries all around it, but this time dim and shadowy. This is the Pitt-Rivers Museum, an indescribable jumble of crowded objects, like an Old Curiosity Shop magnified half a dozen times. Here all the nations of the world jostle together in the most entrancing of all Wunderkammern, initially assembled by the soldier-archeologist Augustus Henry Lane-Fox Pitt-Rivers (1827-1900). In one case a Madonna from France stands beside Buddhist and Hindu statuettes of goddesses with babies in their arms; in another an assembly of African idols includes a carving of Queen Victoria, at once a fertility figure and a perfect expression of the nineteenth-century imperial idea. Yet another contains decorated skulls, the trophies of war, and shrunken heads (yes, real shrunken heads). Webster, says the poet, saw the skull beneath the skin, but how much more terrible to see the skin without the skull: boneless, we become startlingly small and snub-featured, with expressions both malevolent and pathetic, like trolls in an illustration by Arthur Rackham.
Darkest Africa and darkest England walk hand in hand: in one corner magic objects from Katanga and Madagascar sit beside a small metal bottle with a witch inside it, acquired from its owner in 1913 near Hove in Sussex, fifty miles south of London. You can open drawers—for this is an interactive museum, not because it is modern but through sheer old-fashionedness—and find them stuffed with fetishes and charms against the evil eye, or a baby’s caul bought by a sailor as a protection against drowning. Means of exchange are represented by wampum, cowrie shells, and a Birmingham tram token.
In the Pitt-Rivers Museum the strange and the familiar, the wondrous and the commonplace, are interwoven in a complex fabric. Formed unselfconsciously by Victorian anthropology, it has the advantage over the MJT in being both fully real and entirely unwhimsical, and it surely offers a richer, more diverse idea of human possibility, in part perhaps because it conveys among other things the darkness and danger that are part of the human mind and its experience. Yet Weschler refers to the “perturbation” that visitors to the MJT feel, and a philosophy professor, who regularly takes pupils there, told me that they are troubled and talk about it for weeks afterward; one student burst into tears, and could explain her agitation only by saying, “I don’t know why the things that are here are here.”
So perhaps the entertainment has a cutting edge after all, though I wonder if it is not the sheer lack of guile that creates an obscure unease. The enigma of David Wilson is that he too seems to be unselfconscious; his museum may sound too fey, too voulu, but his aficionados are struck by something which, however improbably, can only be called sincerity. As one reads Weschler’s account, there drifts recurrently into the mind a word to which the corrosion of worldliness can give a patronizing edge, but which ought to be pure. That word is innocence.
July 17, 1997