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July 23, 1997|
"Um, what exactly is this place?" the writer Lawrence Weschler asked David Wilson, the founder of a baffling little institution in Los Angeles called The Museum of Jurassic Technology. Wilson answered the question, Weschler says, with a "beatific deadpan," saying, "Well, as you can see, we're a small natural-history museum with an emphasis on curiosities and technological innovation." Unable to pry more out of the man, Weschler -- who has written a delightful book about the museum, titled Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Wonder -- asked a New York museum director about Wilson and his museum. "He never ever breaks irony," she said. "When you're in there with him, everything just seems self-evidently what it is. There's this fine line, though, between knowing you're experiencing something and sensing that something is wrong. There's this slight slippage, which is the very essence of the place."
The Museum of Jurassic Technology now has a Web site, the only apt description of which is, like Weschler's of Wilson, "beatific deadpan." The site's introduction, for example, calmly explains that "the Museum provides the academic community with a specialized repository of relics and artifacts from the Lower Jurassic [and] serves the general public by providing the visitor a hands-on experience of 'life in the Jurassic' ... "
The, uh, Jurassic?
Weschler asked Wilson to elaborate on the Museum's title. "The name lends a sense of what's inside but doesn't refer to a specific geologic time," Wilson answered obligingly, and then suggested that Weschler consult some of the "Museum Publications" -- described on the Web site as "helpful little booklets [that] summarize or expand upon certain of the subjects addressed among the Museum's exhibits," which range from features on fungally infected ants to conical models for memory to the ancient tradition of talking to bees.
No museum -- or museum Web site -- would be complete without a shop, and the Museum of Jurassic Technology doesn't disappoint. Online visitors to the MJT's store can order, for example, "phantograms" -- "a unique form of stereoscopic drawing, which when viewed with the prescribed viewer and from the proper perspective creates the extraordinary illusion of a fully dimensional object in 'real' space in front of the observer." A set of two 8 x 10 phantograms, an illustrated instruction sheet, and a viewer cost $7.50.
Can this be serious? Wilson has provided no clues. "Part of the assigned task," he once told Weschler, "is to reintegrate people to wonder." In describing Wilson's accomplishment Weschler writes, "The visitor to the Museum of Jurassic Technology continually finds himself shimmering between wondering-at (the marvels of nature) and wondering-whether (any of this could possibly be true)."
Museums, one might say, have co-opted wonder; visitors arrive fully expecting to be wowed by what is on display. But the Museum of Jurassic Technology at once celebrates and subverts that expectation. And with its quiet presence on the Internet -- itself a vast, electronic museum of "curiosities and technological innovation" -- the museum's Web site does the same.
Copyright © 1997 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.