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Feasting on Technologies of Recycling in the Jurassic: Repositories of Knowledge and the Desire for Minutiae and Exegesis, with the true account of a conversation with the Museum of Jurassic Technology's progenitor and prognosticator, David Wilson.

Jeanne Scheper

Other Voices, 3.1 Recycling Culture
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On the West side of Los Angeles in Culver City there sits an unassuming storefront at a bus stop on Venice Boulevard. There is nowhere to peer inside this small space to discern what goes on inside. The rug merchant on the corner distracts passers-by, stealing their attention away with wares pouring into the street, open doors, and windows. Only the large, gilded letters above the portico hint that there is something more to what appears to be a former shop space still under renovation or no longer open to the public. If the passerby looks closely and chooses to follow the mannered instructions that gently cue them, "Ring buzzer once for admittance," then, like Alice, they will fall into the rabbit hole that is The Museum of Jurassic Technology (MJT). An urban cultural treasure hidden in the wainscoting of this 21st century city of angels, the museum offers an anachronistic respite from the buzz of southern California. 2008 will mark the twentieth anniversary of the MJT, which is both a space that occupies 9341 Venice Boulevard with esoteric gallery exhibits such as "No One May Ever Have the Same Knowledge Again: Letters to the Mount Wilson Observatory" and which is something else, a rite of passage, perhaps, an invitation to partake in what Walter Benjamin called schwelle or threshold experiences.

The museum's progenitor and prognosticator, David Wilson, has been working in Russia recently completing a series of three movies now shown in the MJT's new Borzoi Kabinet Theater. Before he left for Russia, I wrote Mr. Wilson a letter asking him to consider, among other things, how the MJT might be seen as a recycling of the idea of the museum, or even a recycling of the idea of the death of the museum. The MJT echoes everything from the Victorian private collection to the scientific or natural history museum to the Paris Morgue (open for public viewing in the 1800s) to the American Dime Museum. Its aesthetic might be seen as a marriage of refined taste and cheap amusements, within the purview of both the gentleman scholar and the sideshow huckster. To which histories of display did he see the museum as a successor and what traditions does it reject or critically recycle, if any? We then spoke about this and other matters in the museum's Tula Tea Room.


Jeanne Scheper: I really appreciate this opportunity. It means a lot to me because I've been such a fan of the museum. Like I said in my letter, it's a return home for me in a lot of ways.

David Wilson: Where did you say you were?

JS: Well, I grew up in Baltimore.

DW: Right.

JS: I know in Baltimore they just opened a dime museum [The American Dime Museum]. Have you been there?

DW: I think they just closed the Dime Museum.

JS: Did they just close the Dime Museum?! I guess it's been a couple of years.

DW: They're amazing. Very, very wonderful guys, I don't know them well, but I visited them and just made a connection. They were the real thing. They understand the history. They are steeped in the history, yet they're living it and breathing it. They're not pretending. It's not a historical referent; it's the real thing. They are great guys.

JS: I didn't realize it had closed.

DW: I'm almost positive. You know, I joined and got their mailings. I remember getting something that they were going to close. You know, it was big.

Baltimore is an amazing place. Do you know the Nutshell miniatures? [ed. The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death created by Frances Glessner Lee (1878-1963), see the volume The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death, by Corinne May Botz (New York: Monticelli Press), 2004.]

JS: At the museum?

DW: They're at the coroners office.

JS: Ok, I haven't seen those. I've just read about them.

DW: Ah, They're amazing. I don't know anything else like them. They're just all these little vitrines of murder scenes, you know, that are used for forensic [science] that were done by this woman named Nutshell, or Nut, I think. "Nutshell," which is funny because you always think, well, the Nutshell Miniatures are all going to be inside a nutshell, but they're not at all, they are all like . . .

JS: Dioramas.

DW: Like that big [gesturing about arms length] maybe not quite that big, but a pretty good size. And just wonderful. And, you know, it's all about . . . you look at it, and it's to train forensic scientists, or to train detectives to solve murders in the 1930s. There is a whole story; I can only remember part of it: She tried to set up a study department at Harvard and fund it herself. And I think she did or something, but I know it wasn't terribly long-lived. I don't know, but they're great. And they are local.

[ed. On Frances Glessner Lee's crime-scene miniatures at the Baltimore Medical Examiner's Office, see "Murder in the Dollhouse: How an heiress's meticulous crime-scene miniatures helped bring better medical science into detective work," by Jennifer Schuessler, Boston Globe (October 24, 2004)]

JS: I was wondering [how you would respond to Baltimore] because for me it has such a shared aesthetic. There are so many people there [in Baltimore] that are, like you said, living these things.

DW: Exactly.

JS: And a lot of it is special collecting.

DW: Yes, good. The Walters. Great art.

JS: Yes. And right in that same area, there is a museum of incandescent light in some guy's basement.

[ed. The Mount Vernon Museum of Incandescent Lighting. The curator of the museum was Dr. Hugh Hicks who passed away in 2002. The collection was gifted to the Baltimore Museum of Industry.]

DW: That's right. I tried to get to it and couldn't. I ran out of time. Have you been there?

JS: Yes, my friend [Peter Pan Zahorecz] actually used to live in that building. I had known about it for a while.

DW: Did you have a chance to look around the Museum of Jurassic Technology at all [today]?

JS: I just kind of darted through.

DW: You should see, if it has been three or four years, there is a lot of new stuff.

JS: Are the mobile homes still here?

DW: Yes, still here. Fortunately, we've not had to take much down at all because we've been able to find new corners and places. So, we've added. You know, we haven't added 20 new exhibits, but we've added now a handful of new things. And probably since you were here maybe about that time.

JS: You were doing land reclamation?

DW: They are a separate institution, The Center for Land Use Interpretation. They're pals, but a very separate institution. They're next door just doing great. If you have time, go take a look. I just got back [from Russia] and I haven't had a chance to see what they have up now. They always have something interesting up.

Definitely look around the MJT. There are a couple of new exhibits for you to see in that area. A couple of others. Some things come and go, so you've missed a few things that weren't permanent, but if you have time . . . Do you have time?

JS: Yes, I do.

DW: We put in a little theater right here, literally a 14 seat movie theater [the Borzoi Kabinet Theater]. That's why I was in Russia just now, shooting the second of a series of three movies that we're doing.

JS: For the museum?

DW: For the museum. Take a look at the movie. I think Nana [Nana Tchitchoua] turns it on every hour on the hour. It's only a half hour. It is like an ongoing poetic documentary, furthering this interest that we have in micro-miniatures and very small things. The first—they all draw on some area of interest that we've explored downstairs—the first movie we did, I guess we shot it four years ago, but only finished it about a year and a half or so ago; It's called Levsha [Levsha the Cross-Eyed Lefty from Tula and the Steel Flea] It's based on a [1882] tale by a Russian novelist, a 19th century writer, [Nikolai Semyonovich Leskov (1831-1895)], that tells about a fabled micro-miniaturist. All the really most skilled micro-miniaturists were from the confines of the former Soviet Union. So, it made all the sense in the world to do that in Russia. Plus there is this Nikolai Leskov tale about this fabled micro-miniaturist. And so that was appropriate to do there as well. The second film that we're doing is based on . . . it began being based actually on the Mount Wilson observatory, because you know the letters to Mount Wilson, [No One May Ever Have the Same Knowledge Again: Letters to Mount Wilson Observatory, 1915-1935], then a counterpoint observatory in St. Petersburg called Pulkovo, which is an enormously important historic observatory that was, in the same way really that Mount Wilson was maybe fifty years later, the astronomical center of the world.

It was a very important, very high quality observatory that has had just the most crazy past: destroyed and rebuilt. And so, this new film jumps off there. It is going to be sections, the first section is on Pulkovo, the observatory, and it also deals within other related interests in basic cosmonautics, a fellow named Nikolai, or Konstantin Tsiolkovsky who was the founder of the Russian space program, or the person that conceived of the Russian space program, then a strange and wonderful, very humble, very modest, very influential philosopher-librarian, Nikolai Fedorov, who was Konstantin Tsiolkovsky's teacher. It is about Russian science and the roots of Russian science, which is really very interesting to us because it is a whole different world. The kind of continuity between science and other human endeavors in Russia is much more of a continuum than it is in this country where oftentimes science as a discipline is . . .

JS: . . . is quite separated.

DW: It is quite separated. It'll be dealing with those kinds of thoughts and issues without ever saying so.

JS: And so, I would also like to hear something about the German museum thinking on these kinds of international connections. The way you just described that [film] as something to set against how we see our history of science. Because in a way maybe our history of science is not so different, but we want it to look different, we want it to look more separate.

DW: Or, in the way it is practiced at least publicly is quite different. As Russian science, as little as I know really, seems to be practiced-through our conversation with these astronomers.

JS: And so tell me a little about the German museum [ed. The Karl Ernst Osthaus-Museum].

DW: About seven, actually about ten years ago, someone named Michael Fehr, who ran a small, extremely non-standard museum in Hagen, Germany, had pieces, paintings, as a part of the Degenerate Art show at the L.A. County Museum of Art. He was there, I think giving a talk, and ended up having three or four hours before he had to catch a flight to go back to Germany, and he asked somebody at the museum if there was anything he should see in the hours that he had. And that person said, "oh, he should come here," and brought him here. And he looked around and then we started talking and turns out that we really hit it off well and just kept in touch. And about two or three years after that, he invited me to a conference there and at that time he offered that they had this old building, a beautiful old building, that was not being used because they had built a new building, he wanted to set up what they call a "Töchter Museen" or "a daughter museum" there, and we said sure. It took a while, but we took some of the original materials that we had here at our museum, and some of the things that we opened with. What years did you first come?

[ed. 1991 L.A. County Museum of Art show "'Degenerate Art': The Fate of the Avant-Garde in Nazi Germany"].

JS: The mid- to late-90s.

DW: This was earlier—this was the late 80s. But we took that material and we did a very elaborate presentation of it. And since then, we have done three or four other exhibits there; and it's been really quite successful . . . it's not as big as this; it is not as expensive. We have maybe a third as much material there as we have here, because it's just too hard for us to keep it all. But, it works, and it is interesting.

I saw, but I didn't read through all of those questions [you sent], very deeply because those kind of things like that make my head spin. But I saw you asking about that and those are really interesting questions, I mean, how much of it is translatable, and in a certain way culturally translatable.1 And I don't know that I have answers, but I know that it is something that we became very aware of, conscious of, hoping that the museum in Germany. . . . [That's why I am] interested in these films that we're doing. While we were in St. Petersburg we showed it for the first time in St. Petersburg, and I'm hugely interested in the kind of responses that we get. It is a little bit different.

JS: Or even what type of audience you draw?

DW: Yes. It was a prescribed audience. We have a museum that we are in cooperation with in St. Petersburg called Freud's Dream Museum.

JS: Yes.

DW: Since we have a primary collaborator in St. Petersburg, a woman named Olesya Turkina, who is a curator of contemporary art at the Russian State Museum, which is a huge institution that is in seven different palaces; it's a major cultural institution. She's a very influential curator of contemporary art and yet is very much on our wavelength. We've done a lot of things together in our time and [plan to do] a lot more things. It's a really great collaboration. Her husband [Viktor Mazin] is the person who started Freud's Dream Museum.

JS: I am curious, when you say [you are on] the same wavelength, [what do you mean?] I asked about the crisis of the museum.2 And, so you've talked about a lot of collaborations with more traditional museums. How do you see that relationship?

DW: This collaboration with Olesya: She's very much a museum person, was trained in that world, I think it's fair to say. But the collaboration is really with her, not the Russian State Museum because in Russia, very often, people essentially barely get paid for their work. It's a very complicated life, and all people in that kind of position do a lot of projects outside of their institution, a lot of times as money-making ventures—not that working with us is ever much of a money-making venture—but we try and pay her as we can; she's enormously valuable to us. So, I mean it is with her that we're collaborating, not the Russian State Museum. It's hard to say why . . . you know, she immediately was sympathetic and immediately had an understanding of the sort of tenor and tone of our project. And she just brings a whole lot to it. I know that doesn't help; you'll have to ask it another way.

JS: I know. Well, I have been thinking through my own attraction to these kinds of displays, or to this way of experiencing objects, and I think of where I grew up with that sort of aesthetic in Baltimore as a part of my existence. Then, maybe it's academia, maybe it's just my own knowledge changing, now there is a certain discomfort for me in the attraction and this has something to do with the history of museum as a part of the history of colonialism and scientific racism. And so, how do you either deal with that, or not, at the MJT? One of the ways I asked you this in my letter was whether there was an exhibit here at the MJT that was disturbing to you, or that your attraction to it was disturbing. That might be a direct way of asking.

DW: I don't know. I mean nothing in particular comes to mind, but I know, I can tell myself that discomfort is something that seems valuable. You know, and that none of this has ever been thought through. It's just all pretty spontaneous and intuitive. But I know that as far the history of this thing that we're interested in, levels of discomfort are certainly part of it.

JS: That's part of what creates the . . . threshold experiences, or "wonderment" that people invoke.3

DW: Right, Right, Right, [wonder] is a word that we never . . .

JS: . . . that you never . . .

DW: For a period of time after Weschler's book [ed. Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Wonders by Lawrence Weschler, Vintage, 1996], we had a mantra which was the word "wonder" with a "no" sign through it: like, No Wonder. Wonder is, on the other hand, you know, I remember experiencing it, and the realization of this feeling, this wonder—this is when I was a kid. You know, wonder is not an awful thing; it is just the way it has been kind of pasted on.

JS: Well, especially through the other thing this could resonate with, which is other kinds of entertainments, or, you know, Disneyesque creations.

DW: And even really the whole notion of Wunderkammern [wonder-cabinets] which was not . . . Really, I mean the history of the institution of the museum was an inspiration, but not in a sense of recreating, as people have said, a kind of contemporary Wunderkammern; that certainly was never our intention by any stretch of the imagination. I mean we wanted to make a museum, but in no way did we ever attempt to reproduce or recreate anything having to do with early collections. We're inspired more by the museums of the 1950s than we are museums of the eighteenth century.

JS: Interesting.

DW: But if people see it, it's wonderful if people see it. Very often people come and will have responses that are just baffling to us but that's great, it's wonderful they have those responses.4

JS: And so what about the 1950s museums?

DW: I grew up . . . I grew up in them. I was just overwhelmed by them. Which has to do with one of the points that you were bringing up that [they] had to do in some way with sacred spaces, and I mean museums were [that] to me as a kid, they certainly had that aura in terms of sacred spaces. I don't know. I'm sure there are a lot of ways of thinking about that . . . . And curiously, I find those responses in people here from time to time. I remember there was this guy (I've repeated this story a few times, but you know) . . . a number of years ago, an older Jamaican man, who came in and spent forever back there and maybe was a street person, it's hard to tell. He came away and was just sobbing. I asked, why he was crying? He said, I know it is a museum, but for him it reminded him of a church and he gave us these passages from the Book of Psalms. The correlations that he saw in those passages had to do with the ways in which God was able to destroy his enemies, crush them under foot, like dust under a wagon wheel. Which then never quite became clear [to us], but was nonetheless quite interesting. On a lot of other occasions we hear from people: I remember an event we had in December, someone came up to me that I'd never seen before and said they just wanted to say thanks or something like that, that he'd been part of the museum for years. He said, "you know I am not a church-goer, but this really serves that function for me." Which is very interesting. That certainly was never intentional either, but it is interesting to see those responses. It is interesting to me how it echoes my own experiences growing up in cathedral-like museums.

JS: We used to go to the American Museum of Natural History in New York all the time. But that's one of those things: yes, the museums were like churches, sacred experiences, and you became something different when you entered into them . . .

DW: Yes. Plus there is the presence of death. Which, I know for me, was a huge part of the attraction. All of those animals. I grew up in Denver, which is not the Museum of Natural History, but it is actually amazingly good. Especially, astonishingly good Museum of Natural History: dioramas beautifully, beautifully executed. I know that the presence of death was a huge part of that attraction, which is what memento mori's in . . .

JS: Mexico . . .

DW: Or anywhere . . .

JS: That's interesting, when I was a little kid I always collected bones. That was my first collection. It started from—it also came from—burying the [pet] animals in a certain place so you could find the bones. But, I guess later that kind of attraction of bones is one of those things that then is also disturbing and my relationship to that has shifted back and forth.

DW: Right. But, in what ways? I mean, I am interested . . .

JS: I don't know, I guess it is something I'm wrestling with; I can't totally articulate it. But, I think part of it was, part of it is, what I am studying. Like these women performers, where the predecessor for Josephine Baker is somebody like Sarah Baartman, who was put on display and her bones were put on display, and her bones were kept in the Paris Museum and now they have been repatriated back to South Africa. So then I have to resituate my own collecting of bones within those kinds of histories. So I guess I was interested in whether there was a way in which you either saw . . . [or] had thoughts about how you might . . . both capture the sense of confronting death in a sacred way, but then also confront the troubling histories of putting death in these museums.5

DW: You know, we're in a different place, in a different position than a lot of people. One of the real advantages—and there are a lot of disadvantages to having your own institution, but there have been a lot of amazing advantages—is that you don't really have to answer to anyone . . . the standards by which you process material, really only have to be your own.

JS: But that's true for you partly because you are the genesis of, and your institution is the genesis of, the artifacts, right? On some level, so you have a different relationship, say, than other museums.

DW: Yes, that is true. Right, for sure. Diana [Wilson's wife and an anthropologist] repatriates Native American remains for a living. So, we're pretty conscious of all of this. I mean, that's her moment to moment world. But, yes, I think it is different in certain ways.

JS: And then, I think, it changes the viewer's experience, right? Because you are creating that sense of alienation in terms of the objects on display in a way that somehow reflects back on the viewer in a different way, I think. Maybe that's a way out of what I am talking about.

DW: I think I understand what you are saying, but I guess I am not sure, not clear about your discomfort.

JS: I might not be either.

DW: Yes. I can see where it comes from, anyway. But, I mean there's something there: What does it make you uncomfortable with? Does it make you uncomfortable with the institution, the history, or . . . ?

JS: No, it's more something about thinking through, maybe it gets back to the question about the future of museums or that crisis of the museum that I was talking about. It's how we rethink that and our relationships. It really is about relationships, to go back to your wife's work: relationships to other cultures and the sort of science practiced.

DW: Good. I think that is probably the way in which we came to approach that history and what museums have been . . . But from our perspective, you've got to look. If that's not interesting, what is?

JS: Right, Right.

DW: Which isn't to say that we're interested in setting out to make it a critique of the museum, or in any way of that aspect of the history of the institution. Honestly, truly, we're not. But it all, it all folds in together. I know that it is a huge part of what was so amazing to me from the very beginning of the institution. It is complicated, you know. There are no easy answers. When are things right and wrong? It's complicated, you swim through it rather than trying to . . . which maybe is a luxury we have that as an academic you don't.

JS: Maybe it connects to your talking about things not being planned and being instinctual. I do get a sense, and you could tell me I don't know, how much are you involved in the hands on? For you is part of the pleasure in this museum in the actual creation of these [things]?

DW: All aspects. All of it. There is an enormous amount of research that goes into it. Then there are only a handful of us here. It's not like we all do everything—people are drawn to things they are good at. But it is very collaborative; everyone gets to do some of it. It would be not possible for me to be not very hands-on involved. And I spend way more time in the shop than anyplace else.

JS: Can you say something about the special issue topic on "Recycling of Culture/ Cultural Recycling." Do you want to just speak to that?

DW: Sure. Can you tell me what that means? Or, what that means for them?

JS: Well, I don't want to put words in your mouth or prompt you in any way because I think it could be really open how the MJT interacted with that idea. Part of it is literally the kinds of objects that you are recycling in your displays or placing in a new context, that kind of cultural recycling. I think it is also the idea of the museum being recycled. I think I gave you that quote from Maryse Condé about cannibalization, about taking something you love and digesting it, making something new out of it? Those might be two ways of talking about it.6

DW: It didn't really, when I saw the topic, it didn't really particularly speak to me about . . . I just, I don't . . . I think we look at what we do much more as discovery rather than like recycling. I mean a huge part of what we do . . . and part of our real mission is to discover and find people and/or ideas or work that has escaped public notice, but is, we feel, interesting and should get some sort of public presentation. Hagop Sandaldjian's micro-miniatures, [Harold Henry] Dalton's micromosaics downstairs, [Albert G.] Richards, who did these beautiful stereoscopic x-rays of flowers. All of this kind of work. And all of these people who were just right on the cusp of just falling away and not being ever seen or acknowledged. Not that being seen here is such a, you know, it doesn't put you in the history books. But at least 20,000 people a year see his work. And so, it is so part of what we do that all these wonderful . . .

JS: It is more like an excavation.

DW: Far more of an excavation, than it is [recycling]. Because recycling, to me, almost implies things that have been thrown away.

JS: Right, and reused.

DW: And reused or re-focused, you know. And I don't think that we have any sense of doing that. It is much more discovery and presentation of things that might otherwise fade away.

JS: Ok, well that's interesting because those things that might fade away are cultural detritus that could get thrown away.

DW: Right, right, but in that sense it is not, I mean . . . I guess I don't really know what this notion of recycling is: it could be like plastic bottles, right? But, for me, it is more like saving things—saving things that were in danger of being lost. Museums, and in general what we're about, are so much about loss. You can't escape this notion of loss.

JS: There is something so poignant about that because you're saving things and there is that sense, but there is also a sense that they themselves are a kind of sacred spaces. That they themselves are, I am forgetting the name of it now, a larger kind of grave . . .

DW: Sepulchre.

JS: It's got that kind of double meaning, giving things new life but within an enshrined context.

DW: We spent a month in graveyards with this person in Russia. Russia really has amazing graveyards and cemeteries. The film is essentially a springing out of now, revolving thought and practice of this fellow Federov, Nikolai Federov. And his project was essentially the resurrection and resuscitation of all people who have ever lived. He lived the middle of the nineteenth century and he just knew that technologically it would become possible through the dust of remains to bring people back to life and that the thought, the notion, of death is intolerable. And so, he was essentially in favor—wonderfully curious guy at that time—of the species stopping here: no further procreation; instead the resuscitation of every [thing]. You know, that our generation has to invent, it needs to become the focus of all people and that when this becomes the focus of all people, that all of the other travails of the species will fall into place, [and] will no longer become problems. That war will cease. And that it is about caring and brotherhood, really. And it's a really profound, profoundly bold and noble thought. And he had enormous influence on Fyodor Dostoevsky and Leo Tolstoy. All these guys read Federov. He never published, but [the writings] would circulate underground. And many other influential people were profoundly influenced by this guy . . . and it is all about this notion of loss. So I mean, those things keep coming back.

DW: I think a lot of the things that we have been talking about have a particular presence in Russia. I mean Russia is in my mind; it's impossible to tell how much is in my mind and how much could be in a similar way. It's like looking in the mirror. And I grew up mostly in the 50s and 60s. And those were my childhood [images], and Russia was the absolute other.

JS: I have real memories of it as literally "the iron curtain."

DW: Exactly, absolutely. And then, it's almost like a mirror to this culture in enormously interesting ways. But, like a mirror in the sense of the opposite. I mean, one is not a reflection of the other, but they're a reversal.

JS: A reflection, but not in the ways we are taught. I couldn't tell if when you were talking earlier if you meant that there was a kind of conversation between folk knowledge and science or whether you just meant lay science?

DW: No, I think it really has more to do with life experience and the profoundly tragic experiences that Russians have. And the enormous difficulties they've experienced in my lifetime, and in the lifetime before that. It has been that way for a thousand years. And they have a connection to, a Russian connection to, the soul. Their roots go very deep. And they inform all aspects of life.

JS: In terms of research, or . . . ?

DW: Motivation: the areas that are delved into.

JS: You were talking about the case for this idea of bringing the ancestors to life in terms of a different kind of motivation for science.

DW: Exactly, right, right. So, I am interested in that scientific . . .

JS: Territory.

DW: Territory. That's everything; Everything folds back.

JS: What is it [about St. Petersburg]? Is it the space there; is it the museums? Do you speak Russian?

DW: There's my Russian teacher [pointing to Nana, manager of the Tula Tea Room]. I find myself thinking about wanting to buy a place in St. Petersburg so that I could go there for a period of time every year. Where it puts my mind is profoundly different, incredibly nourishing. It's like now the museum is in more capable hands than ever before, for the first time [I am] able to think of doing that kind of thing.

JS: I know you say now you're making films again, do you see a connection between loss and the miniature in film? Maybe we can try and connect some of these ideas of death and loss to the spectacle of the movie miniature and our relationship to the experience that the movie miniature gives us compared to the diorama as a miniature? What is it about the miniature that goes with some of these other kinds of experiences?7

DW: Yes. Good. I don't know that I am going to be able to say, either. But I know that there is a real serious connection. There is something at work there. And it is, I think, I had never tried, I mean I have wondered many times about the connection, why the attraction of miniatures? A lot of people have written about that, but I am not sure they're really registering; they've really kind of struck at that. The thing that I do know is that there is a very real difference between miniatures and the attraction of miniatures and then this whole other world of micro-miniatures. The things that you have to look at actually through technology have a very different kind of meaning. You know, in miniatures there is something, some psychological thing, which is like projecting yourself into [them]. People talk about perfect worlds and Gulliver and that whole way of thinking about scale. But, I don't know. I don't know about the relationship of miniatures to those other kinds of attractions.

JS: I was thinking about that as you were speaking: there is something about the death drive of the miniature.

DW: But I mean, is there? Is that participating in it in some way?

JS: I don't know. I'm not sure.

DW: Or, if that is a completely different kind of attraction.

JS: Well, yes. And probably there is something you cannot generalize about too. There does seem to be a difference between the miniatures where there is no life imagined, you know, where it is just the environment, and then miniatures where there is some kind of life imagined in it.

DW: Yes, and I find . . .

JS: And then whether that is utopic or dystopic?

DW: I find—and these are all my personal responses—but I find that miniatures without representations of life are far more compelling than [other] miniatures . . . It is almost as if the putting of some kind of representation in the miniature in some way acts as an obstacle to putting yourself into it. And makes it less appealing. I've definitely noticed that.

Do you know the Thorne [Miniature] Rooms [at the Art Institute of Chicago]?

JS: I think that was what I was thinking when you were first talking about the Nutshell collection. The first thing in my head, I went right to the Thorne collection. And I've been also to the museums in Philadelphia: The College of Physicians of Philadelphia, Mütter Museum, I've seen that. And then, in terms of miniatures, I've been in Chicago to the Museum of Science & Industry. Do you know the princesses' dollhouse?8

DW: Oh, Right.

JS: Have you ever seen that? Because I had family in Chicago, my whole life we went there as kids and I was obsessed with that. There is a weeping willow that actually cries tears.

DW: She was an actress.

JS: Yes, she had a connection to the film industry and she was also had some royalty connection. She was an actress.

DW: The head of exhibitions there at the Museum of Science and Industry is actually living in the trailer out back.

JS: Really?

DW: Yeah, and he, Mark Hayward, just now quit. He's been there for a very long time. He was actually, is still, in the process of doing it. He was really instrumental in reviving that, I forget now what it is called. It was his project basically for the last ten years. He's a really wonderful guy, a very interesting guy.

JS: Yeah, they also had that dollhouse; supposedly there is a chapel inside it, and then there are all these facts about it—like that there is a piece of the real cross in the cross in the chapel and these miniature books that are all the full text of various classics.

DW: Right. I am sorry, I feel like there should be more to say about that.

JS: Oh, it wasn't a planned question; it was just something that got to me as you were speaking. I have to think about it. I like what you said about that: I think you're right that it is [dioramas] that don't have life imagined that you could project yourself into.

DW: I guess that is what it is, that you can project yourself. It is certainly an easy assumption; I don't know if that is what the difference is.

JS: And then to me, as you were speaking, I was thinking there is an in-between, too, where you have things where there are not figures necessarily, but there is something happening, which goes back to the crime scene.

DW: Which goes back to the crime scene and/or other miniatures. I think movie miniatures are a very different thing. Because, I mean, I love beautiful movie miniatures, and I love those practical effects, as opposed to other forms of special effects. In the film industry, for so long to be in "effects" in effect meant you were doing strange tricks, you know: making miniatures in the foreground blending with . . just this wonderful stuff.

JS: Incredible craftsmanship.

DW: Amazing craftsmanship, these wonderful abilities to create illusions. You know that I love that stuff.

JS: I think that is why I was asking about the tactile in your experience of the museum. I find so much of the pleasure of the MJT being in its craft and in the tactile.

DW: Handmade.

JS: And that resonates with the idea of an archive: you're actually experiencing materials that we do not have access to now in our box mall world.

DW: Right. And also, more and more with the electronic world, which is . . . I mean, now I love using technology, but, just as in the film industry that change from practical creation of illusion to digital creation of illusion. You know digital creation of illusions are astonishing and wonderful, but somehow, for me at least, end up being less appealing.

JS: There is definitely something lost.

DW: Yes, that's right. You know no matter how brilliant and beautiful they are, they oftentimes aren't. That led me to something else, but then it fled from my mind; maybe it'll come back.

JS: Has anything ever been stolen from the museum?

DW: Astonishingly little, which is a wonderful thing. But, I mean, CD players by kids. But, really, the only thing that I can think of that was ever of value to us that was ever stolen was a hummingbird. It was an enormous loss. It was a real loss. You know a hummingbird: You can't have creatures like that unless you are an institution. Individuals aren't supposed to have birds like that. And so it was in a way a trust, a sacred trust, and to have that violated was really hard for us.

JS: It wasn't living?

DW: It wasn't living. I mean, it was not living. But even having, you're not supposed to have . . . this was actually old. It had been gifted to us. But that's the only thing I can think of, I am sure there are other things, but small things. And the only thing . . . I mean actually, we get many more things given to us. I mean we have things given to us in all kinds of ways. But we have things, instead of shoplifted, "shop-placed." People are forever making surreptitious donations to the museum: They place things, often very carefully, and very interestingly, and thoughtfully, in often very obscure and out of the way places where they are not discovered for extremely long times. Things that are very often loaded with meaning. I remember this one piece of text that the page had been, the words had been, all crossed out except for a series of words that gave them a very strange meaning, totally unrelated to the original text. And lots and lots and lots of things like that are left, are left here way, way more than things that are ever taken from us.

JS: Yes, before you even started that I was going to ask whether you had your own sort of Wilson Observatory letters, your own correspondents.

DW: We definitely keep correspondence. But I think more, the things that are given to us that are—We have some amazing correspondence—but more than that really have been these strange objects that are brought to us, always anonymously.

JS: And do they remain a part then of the exhibitions?

DW: No, oftentimes they are taken from the museum, but archived.

JS: Interesting. The gift economy of the museum.

DW: Yes, it really is.

JS: I wanted to ask you this question about what the future is of the museum. I know you do not want to expand and you were talking about wanting to keep the scale, and you are working on these films, that's the current project. What do you project in terms of future things that the Museum would like to do?

DW: Well, there is a lot. It is all pretty active at the moment. But there is, I think, in general terms, what we are interested in continuing to do is expand not only our exhibitions programming but also in this upstairs was the first stab at that. For us it's been enormously successful to expand the range of what it is that we are presenting. And expand the experience for the visitor. And having the theater, the film, the tea room, all is part of that. But then we are also planning a whole series of gardens that we real feel strongly that we need to do. And we have plans very much to be building. We have a building that is, when we bought the building—and we knew this when we bought it—that one of the buildings is on unreinforced masonry, so we can never really do exhibitions in that space comfortably. So that building is going to have to come down. And so we will be building other spaces. Part of it is we're building a 3/4 scale reproduction of a colonnade, and a lot of architectural elements that then all house an interior garden space.

JS: That's interesting, because the Mütter [ed. The College of Physicans of Philadelphia, Mütter Museum] has that poison garden of medicinals. I think they call it their poison garden. I haven't been there in years either; I remember when I went they had a small garden next to it.

DW: The director [Gretchen Worden] of that was really the person that put it all together over the last, I don't know, 25 years or more, just died. She was a good friend of our community. And a friend. She just out of the blue died, which was really strange and sad. So I don't know, I'm sure the place will be fine. I've never seen the poison garden.

JS: I believe, I know I saved it somewhere (it must be part of the Mütter) the directory of poisons.

DW: So, that from our perspective is what we're going to be doing. We have very serious plans of building and adding some modest amount of exhibition space so that we can keep working over the next however many. That gets interesting. But really more than exhibitions, is thinking in terms of building places that create experiences for people.

JS: What about goals in terms of audience?

DW: When we began the museum, we didn't know if anybody would ever come to the museum. For a while, nobody did come to the museum. And just over time, you know. We've never done anything about audience; it's just always taken care of itself. We do not advertise. We don't promote in any way. We're not interested in doing that. On good day the Getty gets the same number of people we get in year. So, that's a fact. That's a nice balance, right? But I mean our audience seems to be anybody and everybody: a certain appeal to different ages, different backgrounds. I'm not up front as much as I used to be and so I feel less in touch with this information than I might have been. There always has been . . . it's not people from any particular economic background. It's not people from any particular social background. But that there have been instead . . . there are certainly people who will have nothing to do with it. Who really, truly don't like us, that don't like our project, what we're doing. But those people can be, you know, from whatever kind of [background] . . . It is almost as if there are strata that run this way [gesturing] that are like background, economic background . . . but then there are strata that run the other way [gesturing] and in those strata there is a strain or vein of people that really respond to the museum and it could be an 11 year-old Nigerian kid as well as people from In and Out Burger, or Getty Scholars; but as many Getty scholars hate us as people at In and Out Burger hate us, or really like us. It is something else. It's some other cross strata.

JS: You'd have to create a map to figure out what the strata are.

DW: Whether it would it have to do with personality types? I could tell by people when they would walk out: body language, by the way they held their hands. You could just tell what kind of experience they had.

JS: Since I haven't been here in a couple of years, is there something I haven't touched on that you feel is the kernel of the project?

DW: No, I think actually these are interesting questions that people don't usually ask actually. And some things that seem really close to me, the question about discomfort and maybe in your sense of discomfort. You know, I don't know that I understand that, but I know that's like really . . .

JS: . . . somehow part of it.

DW: Yes. An important part of it.

JS: And I think there's actually another thing to map, I think there's different types of discomfort that I am actually talking about. You got at one of them. Another one maybe goes back to the aura or the tactile. I think at one point I wrote to you: horns, horns, horns. There is something that I gave you, the Sappho fragment,9 that is just about a kind of visceral discomfort with stuff. Which maybe is connected to the death thing, too, that we were talking about.

DW: Maybe.

JS: But I just think, too, that there are all these different levels, a more intellectual one about the scientific racism of museums.

DW: Right. Those maybe are not necessarily so different. I understand why you would say they are. Another way of putting it, you know, they all point to the thing in a certain kind of way, the things that are similar, I think, which again has to do with how you relate to that, how you react to that discomfort.

JS: What you do with that.

DW: What you do with that, exactly. Which is not so different from one to the other. And I think that has a lot to do with death. I was talking about that other strata. There are people so uncomfortable here that they just run.

JS: Flee.

DW: Yes. Yes. Or, I've talked about this, we have these guest books and I don't know if it is the case these days or not, it used to be for many years every guest book would have 6 or 8 occasions where somebody literally would have in the guest book not have crossed [their name] out, but like made it black, so even if you were rubbing, you could never make it out.

JS: They erased their presence.

DW: They erased their presence. It happened a lot. And they looked back and saw somebody else had done it and people would spontaneously erase their presences.

JS: What do you think that is about?

DW: I really don't know. We often don't get that kind of conversation because those people don't want to talk.

JS: Right.

DW: We have occasions to talk to those who really didn't like us. That does happen sometimes; I am sure that is not the same every time. I think that we hear, heard, [what] I've heard from those people is: "It is not right, you can't, it is not right to do this."

JS: Because they feel tricked, or . . .?

DW: Sometimes they feel tricked, or . . .

JS: I always wanted to bring my parents here. My parents are divorced; I've always wanted either or both sets [to visit]. My father would identify with the Victorian cabinet of curiosities. But my mother is more the scientist-mathematician-philosopher and she is really rational. And then I think about families or friends who have dealt with schizophrenia and mental illness and I think about how they might have a real difficulty with the sort of [blurring of science and] madness represented by the museum.

DW: You don't think that [they] would, because of the history, find meaning?

JS: Well, that's what I want to know.

DW: Right.

JS: To find meaning. Not to divide it into two responses, but you're often able to find those kinds of meanings or not want to deal with the uncomfortable meshings of those things.

DW: That's how I would characterize it too, but that's probably not fair. That's clearly from our perspective. We think there is meaning where we want to find meaning, and so we like to think, we like to come down a little more on the side of people who find meaning, which probably isn't fair.

JS: Right, true.

DW: There are interesting ways of looking at it from other perspectives as well. That's been a wonderful thing about this, is that the world of [the Museum of Jurassic Technology] can accommodate anything and everything.

November 2004


For Peter Pan Zahorecz (1965-2006), brilliant and serpentine writer/artist, hopeful activist, joyful satirist, loving archivist of quotidian fragments and found things, master craftsman, dearest friend.

Special thanks to Jeremy Grainger, David Smagalla, and Dee Dee Taylor for sharing those enticing first glimpses into the MJT microcosm, to Tiffany Willoughby Herard for many spirited conversations about reverse ethnography, critical race theory, and feminist approaches to archives, to Maurizia Boscagli’s rich seminars on Benjamin, Gender, Marxism, and Modernity, to Sarah Hughes, astute journalist, for her insights on this piece, and to Kristin Koster and Tina Kendall for inviting me to contribute to this special issue.

Ed. note: The questions (QU:) that appear below in the endnotes are reproduced from the author’s written correspondence to David Wilson, September 16, 2004.

1. QU: How is the MJT an American phenomenon? Or, How is the German Museum a trans-cultural recycling of the MJT?

2. QU: MJT appears to capitalize on its own (and all museums) obsolete, superannuated status. In what ways do you see the MJT as a recycling of the idea of the museum, or a recycling of the idea of the death of the museum, and to what purpose? Have rumors of the death of the museum been greatly exaggerated?

3. QU: Almost every passage of Walter Benjamin's work on experiences of modernity and practices of flâneurie appears to speak to the aesthetic and ethos of MJT. In the arcades project, he writes: "Rites de passage-this is the designation in folklore for the ceremonies that attach to death and birth, to marriage, puberty, and so forth. In modern life, these transitions are becoming ever more unrecognizable and impossible to experience. We have grown very poor in threshold experiences. . . . Falling asleep is perhaps the only such experience that remains to us. (But together with this, there is also waking up.) The threshold must be carefully distinguished from the boundary. A schwelle (threshold) is a zone. Transformation, passage, wave action are in the word schwellen, swell, and etymology ought not to overlook these senses." (Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999, [O2a,1], 494.) Can you talk about the MJT as schwellen? And what you see as the importance and challenge of creating threshold experiences in the twenty-first century?

4. Much has been made of the experience of "wonderment" that the MJT produces. As my own testimony evokes, the MJT attracts devotees who view the museum as neo-romantic "sacred ground." "A new Romantic conception of landscape emerges—of landscape that seems, rather, to be cityscape, if it is true that the city is the properly sacred ground of flâneurie." (Benjamin, The Arcades Project, [M2a,1], 420-21). The museum also fosters experiences of suspicion and unease. I might describe the museum as a space of sanctuary and paranoia. It reminds me of the definition of flâneurie that Walter Benjamin gives in The Arcades Project. The dialectic of flâneurie is, he writes in The Arcades Project [M2,8], "on the one side, the man who feels himself viewed by all and sundry as a true suspect and, on the other side, the man who is utterly undiscoverable, the hidden man" (420).

5. QU: The bones of Sarah Baartmann, who was brought to Europe in the nineteenth century as pseudoscientific curiosity and displayed as "The Hottentot Venus" in Paris, were recently returned to South Africa. See The Life and Times of Sara Baartman, dir. Zola Maseko, South Africa, 1998 and The Return of Sara Baartman, dir. Zola Maseko. In the twentieth century, the repatriation of artifacts and especially bones became an important cultural project and represented an epistemological crisis for museums of science and natural history. Are there any objects in your collection that should be returned? Or communities with whom you have been in contact about possessing their artifacts?

6. The Caribbean novelist Maryse Condé has theorized "literary cannibalism" as a strategic response to colonialism, a tactic of resistance deployed by colonized subjects. Cannibalism is a critical recycling, where the enemy or the toxic substance is aggressively incorporated, but then digested and recycled to one's own ends, as in when she wrote Windward Heights, a cannibalization of Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights. Drawing on Oswaldo de Andrade's Cannibal Manifesto (1928), she declares: "Cannibalism is what you do to what you love. You eat what you worship but also make fun of it." QU: How has MJT cannibalized certain types of knowledge discourse or ways of knowing? See, Maryse Condé, Literary Cannibalism seminar, School of Criticism and Theory, Cornell University, July 2004. See also Louise Yelin, "Globalizing Subjects," Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 29.2 (2003): 450-51.

7. Sarah Higley writes "The movie miniature gives me a taste for shrinking, but in the safety of a virtual city." Higley argues that while the movie effects artist seeks to produce illusion, the pleasure of viewing depends on our knowledge that it is a set and a simulacrum. See Sarah Higley, "A Taste for Shrinking: Movie Miniatures and the Unreal City," Camera Obscura 47 (2001): 3. QU: Your career began in movie effects, how does the spectacle of the movie miniature and the spectacle of the museum miniature differ? Can you talk about what produces viewing pleasure at MJT?

8. Colleen Moore's Fairy Castle. See Amelie Hastie's "History in Miniature: Colleen Moore's Dollhouse and Historical Recollection," Camera Obscura 48 (2001): 113-158.

9. QU: The museum plays with desire and horror, tapping into the role of the abject (horns, horns, horns, the horn of Mary Davis). I am reminded of my favorite Sappho fragment: #84

If you are squeamish
Don't prod the 
beach rubble

It seems to me we go to the MJT to prod the beach rubble. Which displays or exhibits are you drawn to, but find your attraction to them disturbing?

Works Cited:

Andrade, Oswaldo de, Cannibal Manifesto. [originally published 1928] Translated from the Portuguese by Mary Ann Caws and Claudia Caliman. Exquisite Corpse 11 (2002). [http://corpse.org/issue_11/manifestos/deandrade.html]

Barnard, Mary. Sappho: A New Translation. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1958.

Barron, Stephanie, ed. Degenerate Art: The Fate of the Avant-Garde in Nazi Germany. New York: Los Angeles County Museum of Art / Henry N. Abrams, 1991.

Benjamin, Walter. The Arcades Project. Translated by Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press, 1999.

Botz, Corinne May. The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death. New York: Monticelli Press, 2004.

Condé, Maryse. Literary Cannibalism seminar. School of Criticism and Theory, Cornell University, July 2004.

Eye of the Needle: The Unique World of Microminiatures of Hagop Sandaldjian. Essay by Raph Rugoff. MJT: Los Angeles, CA: 1996.

Hastie, Amelie. "History in Miniature: Colleen Moore's Dollhouse and Historical Recollection," Camera Obscura 48 (2001): 113-158.

Higley, Sarah. "A Taste for Shrinking: Movie Miniatures and the Unreal City," Camera Obscura 47 (2001): 1-35.

Levsha: The Tale of Cross-eyed Lefty from Tula and the Steel Flea. Film by MJT, 36 min., Museum of Jurassic Technology, circa 2003.

Maseko, Zola, dir. The Life and Times of Sara Baartman, South Africa, 1998.

Maseko, Zola, dir. The Return of Sara Baartman, South Africa, 2003.

Museum of Jurassic Technology Jubilee Catalogue. MJT: Los Angeles, CA, 2001.

Simmons, Sarah, ed. No One May Ever Have the Same Knowledge Again: Letters to the Mount Wilson Observatory, 1915-1935. MJT: Los Angeles, CA, 1994.

Scheper, Jeanne. Personal correspondence with David Wilson, September 16, 2004.

Schuessler, Jennifer. "Murder in the Dollhouse: How an heiress's meticulous crime-scene miniatures helped bring better medical science into detective work," Boston Globe, October 24, 2004.

Weschler, Lawrence. Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Wonders. New York: Vintage, 1996.

Yelin, Louise. "Globalizing Subjects," Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 29.2 (2003): 439-64.

Selected Bibliography:

Museum of Jurassic Technology Publications

Eye of the Needle: The Unique World of Microminiatures of Hagop Sandaldjian

Levsha: The Tale of Cross-eyed Lefty from Tula and the Steel Flea (DVD)

The Museum of Jurassic Technology Jubilee Catalogue

No One May Ever Have the Same Knowledge Again: Letters to Mount Wilson Observatory

Obshee-Delo or "The Common Task" (DVD)

Additional Bibliography: Publications Discussing the Museum of Jurassic Technology

WRAPPER: 40 Possible City Surfaces for the Museum of Jurassic Technology, William Stout Publishers, San Francisco, Rice School of Architecture, Houston.

Matthew W. Roth, "The Museum of Jurassic Technology: Culver City, California" (Review), Technology and Culture, Vol. 43, No. 1. (Jan., 2002), pp. 102-109.

Susan A. Crane, "Memory, Distortion, and History in the Museum," History and Theory, Vol. 36, No. 4, Theme Issue 36: Producing the Past: Making Histories Inside and Outside the Academy. (Dec., 1997), pp. 44-63.

Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Destination Culture: Tourism, Museums, and Heritage, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1998.

Museums and Memory, ed. Susan A. Crane, Stanford University Press, 2000. [Chapter on the Museum of Jurassic Technology.]

Lawrence Weschler, "An Uncanny Yarn: The MJT in Belgrade," Brick 2003 Winter; 72: 61-65.

Additional Bibliography: Online Resources

Studio Works, Museum of Jurassic Technology Facade, http://www.arcspace.com/calif/build/jurassic.htm

John McMurtrie, "Museum of Unnatural History," http://www.salon.com/wlust/feature/1997/10/14museum.html

"Jurassic Genius David Wilson Offbeat Museum Curator Wins Prestigious 'Genius Grant'," NPR audio archive (All Things Considered, Oct. 27, 2001) http://www.npr.org/programs/watc/features/2001/macarthur/011027.macarthur.html

"Corporeal Reality" - Aimee Bender interviews David Wilson, SA#76 (May 22, 2006). http://www.artboy.info/strange/listen.html#Lagrange01


About the Interviewer:

Born in Baltimore, home of the Giant Ball of String and the Shrine of the Dog-Faced Girl, raised on urban flâneurie in the City without Pity, Jeanne Scheper pursued her Southern California dreamin' in the form of a Ph.D. in English from the University of California, Santa Barbara. She joined the Women's Studies Program at the University of Houston in the Fall 2005 as a postdoctoral fellow. Her ongoing research and teaching interests are in the areas of TransAtlantic Modernism, Performance Studies, Visual Culture, and Archives. Her current book project, "Moving Performances," on gender and visual culture in New York, Paris, San Francisco, and Tokyo (1892-1940) theorizes mobility and racial, sexual, and gender identity in the early 20th century, including Orientalist dance crazes (Salomania), diasporic performances (Josephine Baker), the collision of race and sexuality on stage and screen (primitivism and la femme fatale). She is a writer for the performance art group Cave Dogs and a former managing editor of Camera Obscura. She has lectured on feminism and the arts at the Houston Museum of Fine Arts, the Blaffer gallery, and other less fancy venues.

Citation Styles:

MLA Style Citation:
Scheper, Jeanne. "Feasting on Technologies of Recycling in the Jurassic: Repositories of Knowledge and the Desire for Minutiae and Exegesis, with the true account of a conversation with the Museum of Jurassic Technology's progenitor and prognosticator, David Wilson." Other Voices 3.1 May 2007. June 18, 2024 ‹http://www.othervoices.org/3.1/dwilson/index.php›.

Chicago Style Citation:
Jeanne Scheper, Feasting on Technologies of Recycling in the Jurassic: Repositories of Knowledge and the Desire for Minutiae and Exegesis, with the true account of a conversation with the Museum of Jurassic Technology's progenitor and prognosticator, David Wilson. Other Voices 3, no. 1 (2007), ‹http://www.othervoices.org/3.1/dwilson/index.php› (accessed June 18, 2024)

APA Style Citation:
Scheper, Jeanne. (2007, May). Feasting on Technologies of Recycling in the Jurassic: Repositories of Knowledge and the Desire for Minutiae and Exegesis, with the true account of a conversation with the Museum of Jurassic Technology's progenitor and prognosticator, David Wilson. Other Voices, 3.1. Retrieved June 18, 2024, from http://www.othervoices.org/3.1/dwilson/index.php


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