You may well ask. But you will get no answer, unless you devise one yourself as you make your way through the Museum of Jurassic technology’s surprisingly extensive galleries. These wind on, in profound gloom, for some distance behind the small front door on Venice Boulevard, Culver City, California.
The exhibits are shown in reverse chronological order. They include the Fowler collection of Napoleonic memorabilia, a display about Mary Elliott Wing, the Virginian seamstress who, in 1933, invented the first mobile home, based on the dimensions of Noah’s ark. There is also a temporary exhibition of a collection of letters sent by members of the public to the Mount Wilson Observatory between 1915 and 1935, brought together under the title ‘No one may ever have the same knowledge again’.
The Museum describes itself as an educational institution ‘dedicated to the advancement of knowledge and the public appreciation of the Lower Jurassic’. It admits to no foundation date but ‘traces its origins’ to the period around the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries. This was when some of the collections it now houses came into existence. More relevantly, it was the point at which the cabinet of curiosities turned into the modern museum, a process of transformation that the Museum of Jurassic Technology has preserved at the approximate midway stage. Less important (probably) is the fact that those decades saw the first study and naming of the Jurassic strata.
Once the visitor’s eyes have got used to the dark and the mind too has been has adjusted, set to somewhere between ‘open’ and ‘light scepticism’, the experience unfolds at its own uneven pace. An hour or two slip by without trace. Scholarship, whimsy, and traditional curiosities, such as intricate carvings on fruit stones, intermingle in the displays.
A section is devoted to the magnetic devices of Athanasius Kircher, the 17th-century Jesuit priest, antiquary, Egyptologist and inventor who came to believe that magnetism was the universal language of creation. He thought that it governed psychological phenomena as well as material, hence friendship as well as tidal flow. His was an age where physics and metaphysics were on easier terms than they are today, although they have ceased to seem utterly opposed. As the Museum points out, Kircher’s theory of the inter-connectedness of all things seemed utterly naïve in the early 20th century. As we wait on the edge of a workable unified field theory, it seems less so.
The gallery is filled with devices he designed, but did not make. They are poetic demonstrations of his ideas including a fortune-telling device, designed to disprove its own premise, for while the glass globes with figures inside them turn apparently at random, they are responding not to magic but to magnetism.These are objects that are both old and new. They have been realised only recently but passed three centuries or so of previous existence in the minds and libraries of antiquaries.
The demonstration of the curator as creator is taken much further in the Delani/Sonnabend Galleries. This large sequence of rooms juxtaposes two sets of artefacts. One tells the the story of Madelena Delani, a singer of Lieder who suffered from short-term memory deficit. The other follows the life of Geoffrey Sonnabend, a neurophysiologist whose theories of ‘Obliscence: Forgetting and the Problem of Matter’ are illustrated, if not fully illuminated, by a series of models.
Delani and Sonnabend never met, but one evening in 1936, when Delani’s career was in decline and she was touring South America, Sonnabend heard her sing at Igassu Falls, Argentina. After the concert, unable to sleep, he went for a walk during which he invented his theory of memory.
The faded star’s faded accoutrements and their accidental role in Sonnabend’s work meet, as the curators point out, in another memory model, of which they have built an illustration: that of Proust. The way that lives intersect and that the past is experienced in the present is the stuff of art and history as well as neurophysiology. Thus the exhibit both demonstrates and embodies its own argument.
In some ways the Museum of Jurassic Technology is quite conventional. Visitors familiar with South Kensington will not be surprised that it seems to be run by a large but largely unnamed body. Occasional objects appear to be missing, with no explanation, while despite the undoubted scholarship underpinning many of the exhibits, there are some basic spelling mistakes in the labels. Most of the front area is occupied by the shop.
And in its best aspects, too, it is familiar. Those who love the Soane Museum will feel at home, for both are places where the idea of the object, what it looks like and what it makes you feel, are more important than what it literally is. Association is (almost) all. The Museum of Jurassic Technology is part of 21st-century California and also an inheritor of the memory gardens of the renaissance, the picturesque landscapes of the 18th century and the antiquarian interiors of the early 19th.
The desire to create and use collections in this way, to experience thoughts and feelings through a projected material reality, to wander – in other words – among one’s own ideas or journey through the mind of someone else, is ancient and recurring. We draw and redraw the line between our interior experience and objective reality at different points in different ages. We live at a time when the line is moving again and so is slightly blurred; a feeling perfectly recreated in the Museum of Jurassic Technology.
Since 1994 The Museum of Jurassic Technology has had a German branch at the Karl Ernst Osthaus Museum in Hagen, Westphalia