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WESTSIDE COVER STORY : Unnatural History : Forget Reality. The Avant-Garde Museum of Jurassic Technology Specializes in the Strange, Eerie and Improbable. But Its Artistic Intent Is Serious.

March 12, 1995|PENELOPE MOFFET | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

As its name implies, the Museum of Jurassic Technology is an oxymoron--a paradoxical, serious, silly mystery of a place.

Solemnly, it serves up displays on a species of bat that can fly through solid objects, a mice-on-toast remedy for bed-wetting and a memory researcher who most likely never existed. The museum, billed in its introductory slide show as "incongruity born of the overzealous spirit in the face of unfathomable phenomena," has won an international following in the seven years it has occupied a storefront in Palms.

But how to classify Jurassic has been "the subject of a lot of debate," according to Noriko Gamblin, director of exhibitions for the Santa Monica Museum of Art.

"Many people have questioned whether it's a museum or a work of art," Gamblin said. "On both levels I like it. It deals with issues of presentation and authenticity in a way I find provocative."

"They turn the notion of a museum inside out," said Lisa Lyons, director of art programs for the Lannan Foundation, which recently awarded a grant to Jurassic. "One is never quite certain what is real and what is not, what is truth and what is fiction. You really begin to question your ability to perceive, plain and simple."

Lyons sees Jurassic as "a work of art that makes commentary on the nature of museums."

Jurassic was created by David Wilson, a mild-mannered 49-year-old who can usually be found at the front desk Thursday through Sunday, when the public is invited to wander through the shadowy halls.

The museum's strange exhibits are presented with such panache and authority that the viewer may be left scratching his or her head or giggling.

Wilson, for his part, doesn't giggle. Nor does he explain much.

"I think that it's important to leave enough ambiguity so that there is psychological room for different people to understand the material of the museum in whatever way they see fit," he said.

Or as his wife Diana, a lecturer in anthropology at Pitzer College, puts it: "It's something that has to be seen and experienced. The less you know about it when you come in, the better."

The museum, on the corner of Venice Boulevard and Bagley Avenue, hosts 5,000 to 6,000 visitors a year. They come from all over. On a recent weekend, people from New Mexico, New York, San Francisco, Seattle and Bordeaux, France, passed through Jurassic's doors.

In September, part of the museum's core collection went on exhibit at the Karl Ernst Osthaus Museum in Hagen, Germany. Michael Fehr, director of Osthaus, said he is "interested in artists and collections that deal with (the idea of) the museum as a museum. I think this is a very interesting contribution to this theme."

Jurassic survives on a $60,000 annual budget with grants from the California Arts Council, the Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs, a few private foundations, individual donations, admission fees and earnings from its gift shop. About 200 members support the museum with dues. Visitors are asked, but not required, to make a $3 donation at the door.

Permanent and temporary exhibits are on display. The newest show, "Tell the Bees . . . Belief, Knowledge and Hypersymbolic Cognition," opened in December.

"Tell the Bees" was inspired by an old encyclopedia of folk beliefs. Intrigued by the book, Wilson and a few of his volunteer collaborators began doing research at UCLA's Clark Library.

They learned about links between "vulgar knowledge" and some of the major advances of modern science. For instance, centuries ago people from various cultures made wound-curing "medicine" based on molds; after Sir Alexander Fleming developed penicillin from similar molds, he acknowledged his debt to such collective experience.

That information is conveyed in a narrated slide show at the start of "Tell the Bees." But the body of the exhibit consists of much stranger and unbelievable stuff.

For instance, a placard proclaims that "children afflicted with thrush and other fungous mouth or throat disorders can be cured by placing the bill of a duck or goose in the mouth of the afflicted child for a period of time. The cold breath of the fowl will be inhaled by the child and the complaint will disappear." Inside a glass case, the bill of a duck's head is aligned with the lips of a marble head that bears a resemblance to Wilson.

In another display, shriveled mice float in midair on a slice of toast, beside a small meat pie. Beneath are the words: "Bed-wetting or general incontinence of urine can be controlled by eating mice on toast, fur and all . . . Mouse pie when eaten with regularity serves as a remedy for children who stammer."

The text beneath a third display says, "A woman after childbirth is the most dangerous thing on earth. All sorts of uncanny things are around the mother and infant, and if she goes to a river to wash, the fish will go away." The display itself is a miniature wooden bed with its sheet thrown back, its miniature woman gone.

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