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Weird Science : Palms' quirky Museum of Jurassic Technology offers curioser and curioser displays, likely to prompt more questions than they answer

December 31, 1989|DAVID WHARTON

The learner must be led always from familiar objects toward the unfamiliar, guided along, as it were, a chain of flowers into the mysteries of life.

--pamphlet from the Museum of Jurassic Technology

An In-N-Out Burger recently opened on Venice Boulevard, yet another attraction along the main drag of Palms, a West Los Angeles neighborhood of apartment buildings and condominiums south of the Santa Monica Freeway.

Already gracing the boulevard were several video rental shops, a discount tire store and a janitorial supply outlet. And, in a storefront of somber maroon and green, the Museum of Jurassic Technology.

A museum hardly seems fitting here, among hamburger stands and strip malls. A museum suggests permanence and that, too, seems out of place. People--many of them renters--arrive in Palms only to move on. Small businesses tend to come and go.

Yet there is some sense to the location of the Museum of Jurassic Technology, if only because this odd little institution is as unlikely as its surroundings.

The Jurassic defies classification. Or, perhaps, it demands classification. A large part of the experience of walking through this place is trying to decide what it is.

"By and large, we prefer not to describe it," says owner and curator David Wilson, offering no help in a polite tone of voice.

In the simplest, most tangible terms, the museum consists of 1,500 square feet of commercial space.

There is a lobby with pamphlets and souvenirs and, subsequently, an introductory slide show for newcomers. Wilson often plays accordion--doleful Italian standards--by the front door.

The remaining space is dedicated to 30 or so painstakingly prepared exhibits that offer quasi-religious objects, skeletal remains and exotic displays.

A prominent, rectangular cabinet features corpse-like masks. By peering through prisms at the far end of the case, visitors see a hologram of two hands suspended above the masks that appear to perform sign language. A man's voice whispers from a small speaker:

\o7 "...The amber filters were five times as good and they were expensive, five times as expensive ...

" ... at that point, I looked the man in the eye for the first time and saw that he was a Cyclops ..." \f7

The exhibit is untitled. There is no explanatory text.

A few feet away stands an impressive glass case--the museum's focal point--containing pictures, models and charts regarding the "Deprong Mori" bat of South America. A recorded message explains that the Deprong Mori emits extreme ultraviolet rays, as compared to the sonic emissions of normal bats. The Deprong Mori is thereby enabled to fly through solid objects such as tree trunks and thatched huts, we are told. Frenchman Bernard Maston is credited with early studies of this phenomenon. The exhibit demonstrates how British scientist Donald R. Griffith later trapped one of these bats in a lead wall he erected amid the jungle of the Tripsicum Plateau.

Documentation is available in the lobby.

"We're definitely interested in phenomenon that other natural history museums seem unwilling to present," Wilson said.

The museum's general statement begins: "\o7 The Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles, California, is an educational institution dedicated to the advancement of knowledge and the public appreciation of the Lower Jurassic."

\f7 Webster's Dictionary defines Jurassic as "the second period of the Mesozoic Era . . . characterized by the dominance of dinosaurs and the appearance of flying reptiles and birds."

There is little mention of dinosaurs or flying reptiles in the museum.

-- --

Wilson, 43, grew up in Denver, and says he wasn't like other children.

"Rather than playing ball in the park, I was always at the natural history museum."

After studying urban entomology at Kalamazoo College in Michigan, he earned a degree in film from CalArts in Valencia. Soon after, his family house in Colorado burned to the ground.

"There was nothing to go back to," he says.

So he remained in Los Angeles and established a company that provides animation and miniature models for motion pictures. A small man with wire-rim glasses and a close-cropped beard, Wilson also worked on installation art pieces.

One day, he put a sheet of clear plastic over an artwork to protect it from dust. Inspiration struck.

"It hit me that what I wanted to be doing was making a museum," he says. "The ideas for half of these exhibits, for the name of the museum and how it would be presented to the public came to me in a half-hour."

Wilson's wife, Diana, an artist and anthropologist, joined in the quest. Friends donated display items and money. Much of the funding came out of the Wilsons' pockets. Last year, in September, the museum opened.

"We're quite committed," Wilson says. "We feel a sense that what we're doing is important and valuable."

Artifacts are displayed in rooms of gray carpet and muted colors. Some exhibits feature recorded messages and push-button demonstrations. Informative texts are mounted on the walls.

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