One display outlines Donald R. Griffith's capture of a tiny South American bat reportedly able to fly through solid objects. In 1952, the eminent chiroptologist tricked the "piercing devil" by setting up, in the jungle, massive lead walls that were invisible to the bat's unique echolocation system. Another display contains a diorama of Iguazu Falls, complete with circulating water. Viewed from the side, the landscape looks like a model railroader's fantasy. But when seen from the front, a ghostly suspension bridge spans the falls. A nearby phone receiver conveys the story of Wilhelm Sonnabend, a young structural engineer whose dream bridge collapsed into the chasm a day before its completion in 1886.
Several galleries are devoted to the intellectual adventures of Anthanasius Kircher (1602-1680), a Jesuit scholar, inventor, geographer, Egyptologist, astronomer and, among many other things, proprietor of one of the first public museums. Other rooms, halls and closet-sized spaces are dedicated to special exhibitions, including "Garden of Eden on Wheels: Collections from L.A. Mobile Homes and Trailer Parks" and "Tell the Bees: Belief, Knowledge and Hypersymbolic Cognition."
The museum's devious exhibits form labyrinthine stories in which truth and fiction play cat and mouse. The charm of the place resides in the homespun feel of the exhibits. Rarely is every one of them up and running: burned-out light bulbs and malfunctioning mechanisms can always be found, adding to the sense of adventure.
"We think of ourselves as just another museum in a city full of splendid museums," Wilson says. "All museums are different. All have something to put into the world. We're an institution with a very specific kind of thing that is sometimes complicated to put into words. We have a program and we know our program is not for everyone, but it seems to be for enough people to warrant our existence. And that's basically how we see ourselves. As providing a service in terms of fulfilling a certain kind of need in the culture."
Admissions (suggested donations: adults $4, students and seniors, $2.50), gift shop sales and a loyal core of about 500 members provide a steady source of income. From 1989, when the museum opened to the public, to 1999, when Wilson purchased the building, this more or less covered the rent. Since then, it has paid most of the mortgage ($5,000 a month). Gifts and grants have also increased throughout the 1990s, paying the modest wages of a part-time staff of six and all of the museum's operating expenses, which for the last few years have ranged from $150,000 to $200,000 annually. Wilson, the founder and director, does not draw a salary. His modest office is housed in a weathered 1951 Spartanette trailer, built by J. Paul Getty's Spartan Aircraft Co.
Never one to put security ahead of growth, he has consistently expanded the museum, often taking it to the brink of financial disaster. In 1993, he doubled its floor space, breaking through an adjoining wall to add a 1,600-square-foot building. A second expansion, in 1995, added 2,000 square feet. And in 1999, with major contributions from the Lannan, Bohen, Ahmanson and Ralph M. Parsons foundations, the museum was able to purchase the 12,000-square-foot structure in which it is housed. (Part of that deal involved selling a 1,600-square-foot space to the Center for Land Use Interpretation, a quirky information bureau that collects and disperses data about the natural and not-so-natural landscape we live in.)
When Wilson walks back to the museum from a nearby cafe, he strolls in a relaxed manner, chatting casually about neighborhood development and city governance. Once inside the front door, he picks up the pace. Darting around corners, scampering down crooked corridors and disappearing behind a sheet of plywood that covers a hidden doorway, he leads a visitor on a whirlwind tour of the museum's back rooms: cluttered workshops, temporary offices and raw spaces still filled with the remnants of previous tenants.
He also speaks more quickly, outlining plans with dizzying swiftness. "We're thinking of going beyond adding more exhibition halls to adding other kinds of experiences," he says. "Expanding the nature of the experience rather than simply adding more of the same."
The funds provided by the MacArthur Foundation will allow Wilson to transform a cluster of large storerooms, and part of a mid-size parking lot at the back of the property into an indoor-outdoor garden. A former walk-in freezer will become a new 3-D exhibit. Upstairs, he plans to convert several rooms of an old apartment into a tearoom overlooking Venice Boulevard. Down the hall, the construction of a 14-seat theater is awaiting its finishing touches.