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‘Where are the Dinosaurs?’: Reflections on Public History at the Museum of Jurassic Technology

by Tom Smith – @TomEtesonSmith

What connects the obscure lives of neurophysiologist Geoffrey Sonnabend and opera singer Madelena Delani? Are these people even real? Is there really an elaborate miniature engraving of the Crucifixion on that seemingly ordinary fruit stone? Are we supposed to take these heroic portraits of the dogs of the Soviet space programme seriously? Are bees really seen to be so integral to the life cycle within certain cultures that they must be told if a member of the family has married or died, and are invited (in writing) to funerals? And what on earth does that have to do with Alexander Fleming? These are all questions which you may find yourself asking during a visit to what the Smithsonian’s website describes as ‘Los Angeles’s Strangest Museum’: the Museum of Jurassic Technology.[1] Walking through its labyrinth of exhibits, I was led to reflect on the very concept of the museum, and the way in which we rely upon it to structure our understanding and interpretation of history.

Founded in 1988 by the husband-and-wife team David and Diana Wilson, the MJT is easy to miss. From the outside, it appears as a tiny frontage on a nondescript street in Culver City. Inside, however, it opens out into a series of exhibition rooms, pronouncing in an introductory video its grandiose claim to be ‘an educational institution dedicated to the advancement of knowledge and appreciation of the Lower Jurassic’. Confronted in one room with the Cameroonian ‘stink ant’, in the next with the scientific and spiritual pretensions of seventeenth-century polymath Athanasius Kircher, and in the next with dioramas depicting the development of American trailer parks, you’re immediately not quite sure what to make of it all. By the time you’ve reached the ostensible end of the museum, marked by a Russian-style tearoom and a tranquil rooftop terrace, utter confusion has set in. For a start, nothing you’ve seen has anything to do with the Jurassic.

Knowing that you are in a museum, the mind immediately seeks to find significance and connections amidst the chaos, and wants to believe what it is taking in even when it seems to fly in the face of common sense. When you do begin to question whether information is useful or true, the po-faced, authoritative, jargon-laden explanations which accompany the exhibits, in particular a series of seemingly interminable audiovisual presentations dotted throughout the museum, make you doubt your own convictions. You can spend a good few minutes absent-mindedly listening to these before you realize you haven’t understood a word. If this is a joke, it’s an extremely subtle one: in the words of one writer, it’s ‘so boring it must be true’.[2] And so, all you are left with are questions, which you can attempt to answer yourself with varying degrees of certainty. Such is the feedback loop which the museum’s existence has created, even a Google search is inconclusive when seeking clarification.

Above all, the MJT led me to think about the power of the museum space in shaping our engagement with history. We rely on this space to offer us context, order, and interpretation, and when we’re robbed of this security and are left to make our own connections and draw our own conclusions, the result can be profoundly disorientating. We might feel as though we’ve been cast back into a time when museums were merely collections, ‘cabinets of curiosity’, with little apparent concern for interpretation or coherence.

People enter the MJT with vastly different expectations, expertise, and interests, and leave with varying levels of satisfaction, frustration, and confusion. Though I’m sure the Wilsons would say there is no one way that the MJT is supposed to make you feel, I came away with the feeling of having been subjected to a fascinating thought experiment, whereby what you think you know about history and culture is pitted against a baffling array of exhibits in which it’s far from clear what’s true and what isn’t. The question then is as to how much you accept before you begin to question the authority of the museum space.

Image: Sascha Pohflepp, ‘The Museum of Jurassic Technology’ (https://www.flickr.com/photos/saschapohflepp/2758673826, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0)

References

[1] http://www.smithsonianmag.com/travel/inside-las-strangest-museum-180954803/?no-ist

[2] Spencer Downing, ‘So Boring It Must Be True: Faux History and the Generation of Wonder at the Museum of Jurassic Technology’, SPECS Journal of Art and Culture, Vol. 2 (2009), pp. 46-63.

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