LAWRENCE WESCHLER: Get this. There’s a bat that’s been known to display an uncanny ability to fly right through walls. There’s an ant in the rain forests of West Central Africa whose scream is audible to human ears. There’s a sculptor who’s taken to carving strands of his own hair the way Michelangelo would carve a block of marble.
Unbelievable? Maybe. Yet you can see these and countless other wonders any day of the week at a diminutive storefront museum along one of the main drags in west L.A. The Museum of Jurassic Technology . . .
Well, not any day. Most days it’s closed. But on those days when it is open, you’re as likely as not to come upon David Wilson, the museum’s founding director, standing out on the sidewalk serenading the passing traffic with his accordion. If you happen, say, to be waiting for the bus on the bench outside the museum and show even a flicker of interest, Wilson will greet you as if it were specifically you he’d been waiting all these years to have come. He’ll put down his accordion and bid you enter.
(Door creaks open.)
WESCHLER: It’s dark in there like one of those musty 19th Century Victorian natural history museums. You know: oak tables, glass cases, plush velvet, all sorts of strange sounds bubbling up from the various alcoves . . . and museum director David Wilson popping up every so often over your shoulder.
DAVID WILSON: We’re a small museum of — we say natural history — history of science and history of art.
WESCHLER: Wilson himself is small. A serious gentleman, maybe in his mid-forties, with a well-cropped Amish style beard. At first glance, his museum may seem like any other, although almost immediately you begin to experience the slight sense of slippage. For instance, the very first display you encounter is an exhibit entitled ”Protective Auditory Mimicry.” Together, encased under glass, are displayed a luminous iridescent beetle and next to it a similarly tiny iridescent pebble. The wall placard to the side asserts that over the eons this beetle has adapted to make precisely the same sound when threatened that this pebble makes at rest.
(Background humming noise.)
WILSON: We feel it’s a good exhibit to have right at the beginning because in a certain way it helps set the tone for the rest of the museum, and people find it enormously interesting, I think.
WESCHLER: Over to the side at eye level there’s a Plexiglas box, inside of which, mounted, you’ll find . . . well, it looks like a fruit pit. It’s hard to tell what it is exactly, although the legend off to the side insists that it’s an almond stone in which someone has carved a bearded man wearing a berretta — a long tunic of classical character — and thick-soled shoes. In the distance are representations of animals including: a lion, a bear, an elephant ridden by a monkey, a boar, a dog . . .
WILSON: . . . an elephant ridden by a monkey, a boar, a dog, a donkey, a stag, a camel, a horse, a bird, a goat, a lynx and a group of rabbits latter under a branch under which sit an owl, another bird, and a squirrel. Its’ dimensions are thirteen micrometers by eleven micrometers.
WESCHLER: You can almost not see any of that it’s so tiny.
WILSON: This particular artifact has been handled a lot and a great deal of it is unfortunately worn away.
WESCHLER: Maybe. I don’t know. As I say, it’s all a little confusing. In fact, by this time you too may be beginning to dissolve into vertigo. So maybe the thing to do is start from scratch, with the introductory slide lecture that David urges his visitors to begin with.
(Sounds of slide show.)
SLIDE SHOW: ”The Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles, California is an educational institution dedicated to the advancement of knowledge and the public appreciation of the Lower Jurassic . . .”
WESCHLER: And it goes on like that, all in that voice of unassailable institutional authority. You know, the voice from every museum acoustic-guide and nature special, reciting a long series of ever-loopier seeming assertions about the history of the various collections which eventually spawned the Jurassic.
SLIDE SHOW: ”Many of these collections are well known and need only need to be mentioned here. Among these were the collection of O. Worm, whose museum, or meanum, achieved great fame. Another collection of rarities was preserved at South Lambath by Elias Ashmole. Mr. Ashmole, a botanist, presented his extraordinary collection to his friend and neighbor, Samuel Dull, author of The Pharmacologia.”
WESCHLER: And on and on for twenty minutes. During which time perhaps you may be joined by another of the museum’s infrequent visitors, such as the tall, stooped gentleman in well-worn sandals, a hunting knife strapped to a sheath at his waist. He sits down beside us on this particular Thursday afternoon, starts watching the slide show, and proceeds to nod off.
(Sound of slide show ending.)
SLIDE SHOW: ”Glory to him who endureth forever and in whose hand are the keys of unlimited pardon and unending punishment.”
WESCHLER: Our neighbor introduces himself as Anthony Lloyd, and tells us he’s been thinking about checking out this place for years, wondering during his wanderings about that guy with his accordion, and what else might be lurking behind that door.
ANTHONY LLOYD: This place has always been a very pulling force for me, and even some other people in the neighborhood. It’s always been a place of mysterious inquiry, you could say, you know.
WESCHLER: People talk about it?
LLOYD: Yeah, people talk about it. We don’t know what’s in here. It’s something that is worth being known about.
WESCHLER: Why don’t we look around and see some other stuff?
WESCHLER: We pass the fruit stone carving. Our friend gazes in, peruses the caption.
LLOYD: Is that right?
WESCHLER: And we move on, toward a whole small wing of the museum in which Wilson has installed a series of mysteriously beautiful vitrines, lovingly and meticulously rendered, evoking the alleged curative powers of a variety of alleged superstitions through the ages.
WESCHLER: Like the cabinet near the front, in which two mice, fur and all, rest delectably on a slice of browned toast. The caption insists that this was once esteemed a superb cure for children who wet their beds.
LLOYD: They actually eat this as a sandwich? That would flip the world out.
WESCHLER: Through this all, David Wilson pads about. One moment he’s at his desk, the next he’s gone — who knows where? Perhaps to a workroom secreted at the rear of the museum. A few moments later he pops up beside us as if he’d never been gone at all.
WILSON: Hi, sorry. How are you doing?
LLOYD: That’s alright. I was just kind of assimilating, absorbing all this stuff.
WILSON: Yeah, it’s a lot to take in all at once.
LLOYD: Oh yeah. I’ve always had a feeling that there is something strange and mystical and beneficial coming from this place because it emanates a very type of healing, metaphysical type of healing thing, from here.
WILSON: Huh. That’s interesting.
LLOYD: And you yourself, you have a certain type of aura about yourself. Your demeanor is different from a lot of human beings that you just see on the street.
WESCHLER: Hmmm. He’s not kidding. Wilson started out, anyway, just like any other human being you’d see on the street: born in Denver, the middle son of a doctor and his wife. He had a standard 1950’s middle class upbringing, though early on he began experiencing these strange hankerings: a sense of mission as if, he once told me, he were receiving some kind of instructions, which for the longest time he couldn’t make out. He went on with his life. He went to college and on the first day of school met his future wife, Diana, with whom he eventually began working on the fringes of Hollywood, inventing intricate miniature special effects off of which they were making a very fine living until one day, about a decade ago, the idea for the museum suddenly just hit Wilson. He got in his car and went to pick up Diana.
DIANA WILSON: I could tell something was up. As we were pulling away from the curb he handed me this piece of paper that said ”The Museum of Jurassic Technology,” and I said ”What?” And he told me that he was building a museum.
DAVID WILSON: And I think her response was ”What is this, your life’s work?” And she was right.
EXHIBIT TAPE: ”In the rain-forest of the Cameroon in west central Africa, lives a floor-dwelling ant known as Megalopenera foetens, or, more commonly, the stink ant.”
WESCHLER: Back towards the front of the museum there’s a vitrine documenting the improbable life cycle of that rain-forest ant. You know, the one whose scream is audible to the human ear. These ants form a very industrious, efficient tribe, systematically foraging for food on the rain forest floor. Except that every once in a while, or so the voice in the exhibit’s accompanying telephone receiver would have us believe, one of them may inhale a microscopic spore of a fungus from the genus Tomentella, millions of which are raining down on the forest floor from somewhere in the canopy above. The spore quickly lodges in its ant host’s brain fomenting bizarre behavioral changes.
EXHIBIT TAPE: ”The ant appears troubled and confused. For the first time in its life, the ant leaves the forest floor and begins to climb.”
WESCHLER: It climbs the tendrils of hanging vines. It climbs and climbs, until it reaches a certain prescribed height at which point it impales its mandibles on the vine and waits to die.
EXHIBIT TAPE: ”The fungus continues to consume first the nerve cells, and finally all the soft tissue that remains of the ant. After approximately two weeks, a spike appears from what had been the head of the ant. This spike is about an inch and a half in length and has a bright orange tip heavy with spores which rain down on the rain-forest floor for other unsuspecting ants to inhale.”
WILSON: We’ve read this ourselves as a metaphor for our own kind of obsessive behavior about this institution. It seems to us sometimes almost as if we’ve inhaled a spore ourselves and have driven to behave in unnaturally obsessive ways in the creation of this institution.
WESCHLER: What kind of salary do you get?
WILSON: Um . . . my salary could best be described as zero. As nothing.
DIANA WESCHLER: I don’t know. It’s become a way of life. (Laughs.) It’s a strange way of life, but it’s a way of life
EXHIBIT TAPE: ”The five areas of inquiry are pins and needles, body parts and secretions, shoes and stockings . . . ”
WILSON: There are some people who, for reasons we don’t entirely understand, come to the museum and in our introductory slide show begin to laugh, and laugh uproariously through the entire museum, laugh at every exhibit. We don’t object to this, but we don’t exactly understand why. On the other end of the spectrum we have people for whom the museum is a much more solemn and serious place. We remember fondly a man called John Thomas, who when he first came to the museum spent at least three hours in the back, and when he came out he leaned his head against the wall and cried inconsolably for at least three minutes. My wife went over to him, and he said that he realized that it was a museum but to him it was like a church.
WESCHLER: One day, for instance, when I was talking with David at his front desk, a visitor emerged from the maze-like alcoves stupefied. He stopped for a moment and gazed on the rotary pencil sharpener on David’s desk. He stared at it, manipulated the rotor, dumbfounded. Like he’d never seen anything like it in his life. It was just an ordinary pencil sharpener.
WILSON: One of the things that we are greatly interested in is helping people to achieve states of wonder.
WESCHLER: So you’re not upset when people come to you at the desk and are confused about what kind of place this is?
WILSON: No. We feel that confusion can be a very creative state of mind. In fact, confusion can act as a vehicle to open people’s minds. The hard shell of certainty can be shattered, and once that certainty is shattered, then I feel people are more open to broader influences.
WESCHLER: Along one of the museum’s walls, there’s an antler array. You know, moose antlers, gazelle prows, antelope rack — and in the midst of them all, according to the legend off to the side, the horn of one Mary Davis of Saughall.
LLOYD: This was on a woman? It’s breathtaking.
WESCHLER: Our friend, Mr. Lloyd, has just encountered Miss Davis’ horn.
LLOYD: Okay, so how do you explain that? I mean, was she a specific species from earth? They actually were earth people?
WILSON: We assume that she was from earth.
LLOYD: The year is 1688.
WILSON: Quite a while ago. But she’s not the only person to ever grow a horn. There have been recorded numbers of people who’ve grown horns.
LLOYD: Could this be from her having some type of sexual intercourse with an animal that had horns?
WILSON: That hadn’t occurred to me. There are people who have similar beliefs or thoughts like that. That would be interesting if there would be a way to check or find out.
Hmmm. Right. Huh.
WESCHLER: It would be interesting if there were a way to find out about a lot of this stuff. But easier said than done. Or so you start realizing the more time you spend in the Jurassic.
LLOYD: I really enjoyed myself. This was very new to me. And I learned a lot. It was like going through a pyramid or something, you know.
WILSON: Thanks again.
(Sound of door closing.)
WILSON: What is the device?
HAROLD CHAMBERS: Well, you drive the direct current motor with an alternating current from the mains.
WESCHLER: Saturday at the Jurassic. A little more crowded — which is to say maybe two or three visitors ambling through at any given moment. At the front desk, David Wilson chats with one of the key members of his volunteer staff.
WILSON: This is Harold Chambers, who is currently head of our research department.
CHAMBERS: Oh. Thank you.
WESCHLER: Seventy years old, pot bellied, peering through thick glasses, Chambers wears a straw hat over his buzz cut, with rolled-up blue jean overalls. He first came upon the museum of Jurassic Technology while perusing the Yellow Pages. Thinking that it might have something to do with dinosaurs, he hurried over. While there was nothing in the museum about dinosaurs, other of its marvels caught his attention.
CHAMBERS: I was fascinated by it and I saw things here that I didn’t quite know what to make of at first, and I kept coming back. I walked around and I saw things that ordinarily you wouldn’t think of as related, but . . . yet . . . to me it made sense. Sort of a metaphor for the universe, where things are not necessarily what they seem, where you can say one thing and mean something else. So you never know what you’re gonna find.
EXHIBIT TAPE: ”Before you is an exhibit documenting the remarkable history of the scientific discovery of an equally remarkable creature, the Myotis lucifugus.”
WESCHLER: For instance, there’s another exhibit at the Jurassic which relates in great detail a set of obscure accounts of a bat which can supposedly pass clean through solid objects. In 1952, according to the exhibit, the renowned chiropterist, Donald R. Griffith of Rockefeller University, stumbled across these accounts and headed down to the jungles of northern South America on a Noris Foundation grant. He and his team transported huge walls of lead into the forest, hoping to snare one of these creatures, and waited. Months and months passed, and he almost gave up.
Exhibit Tape: ”Finally, however, in the early morning of August 18th at 4: 13 a.m., Griffith’s instruments recorded the event that the team had been awaiting. The number three wall had received an impact of the magnitude of ten to the third ergs, twelve feet above the forest floor. Precisely at the spot indicated by the seismometer, Griffith’s x-ray viewer found, at a depth of seven and one eighth inches, the first Myotis lucifugus ever contained by man, eternally frozen in a mass of solid lead. This exhibit is made possible by the men and women of the Sin Wing Corporation.”
WILSON: He was a real pioneer.
WESCHLER: How did you hear about this?
WILSON: We actually ran across all of this material of Griffith’s in a reprint of Scientific American.
WESCHLER: David couldn’t seem to find that re-print when I asked him about it. But the exhibit itself, complete with the actual slice from that celebrated lead wall, is one of the high points of any visit to the museum and indeed the focus of endless debates.
STUDENT 1: But I mean, in the bats’ lungs, is that be filled with air or lead?
STUDENT 2: Air.
STUDENT 1: What happened to the lead that was occupying that space?
STUDENT 2: I see what you’re saying.
WILSON: It’s exactly that. That’s funny because I was just having this conversation with somebody last week.
(Sound of door buzz.)
WESCHLER: Another visitor arrives. Turns out this fellow has come all the way from Italy, drawn by one exhibit in particular which he read about in a Roman newspaper.
EXHIBIT TAPE: ”Welcome to the Delani Sonnabend Halls of the Museum of Jurassic Technology.”
WESCHLER: This exhibit is perhaps the museum’s most elaborate, certainly one of its most popular. It actually inhabits an entire wing of the place. It recounts the life story of the American neuro-physiologist Geoffrey Sonnabend who, back in the 1930s, or so we’re told, contrived a remarkable theory of memory.
Exhibit Tape: ”In his three volume work, Oblescence: Theories of Forgetting and the Problems of Matter, Geoffrey Sonnabend departed from all previous memory research with the premise that memory is an illusion. Forgetting, he believed, not remembering, is the inevitable outcome of all experience.”
WESCHLER: Strangely enough, Sonnabend’s work now seems completely forgotten, as does Geoffrey Sonnabend himself. Our Italian visitor tells David that he’s searched everywhere for information. The Library of Congress — nothing. He’s even contacted Northwestern University, where Sonnabend was supposedly once a faculty member. Nothing.. . .
TOURIST: Where did you find this?
WILSON: This material came from UCLA. It’s hard to find.
TOURIST: Because even the book, his book is . . .
WILSON: It’s difficult. Out of print I’m sure.
TOURIST: You don’t have a copy of it? No?
WILSON: No, we don’t have a copy.
TOURIST: Well, anyway . . .
WILSON: Well, I’m glad you’re here.
TOURIST: (Laughs.) Thank you very much.
EXHIBIT TAPE: ”Sonnabend devised a system of classification of experience based on the division of the planes into four groups, depending on the pitch or ’attitude’ of the plane.”
WESCHLER: The museum’s exhibit, like Sonnabend’s theory, is phenomenally intricate.
EXHIBIT TAPE: ”Group one, within seven degrees of arc of vertical. Group two, between eight and 90 degrees of arc. Group three, between 91 and 173 degrees of arc.”
WILSON: Although his work received a certain amount of interest when he first published it, it didn’t seem to withstand the test of time, and is not often cited today.
WESCHLER: David is completely sincere. He never breaks irony. He even travels the world, to scholarly conferences, lecturing on this stuff as if it were absolutely real. Sometimes I think he thinks it is.
There’s another exhibit up at the museum these days. A display of 30 small cylindrical canisters. And within: well, what purports to be the life work of a Soviet Armenian refugee microminiature artist named Hagop Sandaldjian. Thirty meticulously painted, achingly rendered sculptures far too small for the eye to see without the assistance of the magnifying lenses slotted into the lid of each canister. For instance, Snow White and all seven of her dwarfs arrayed along the shaft of a needle fashioned out of motes of dust. Or a sculpture of Napoleon defiantly perched inside the eye of a needle. Or Christ himself, crucified on a cross of hair.
The first time I saw these canisters, I asked David if I could meet their supposed creator, this guy Sandaldjian. And, typically, David replied that he wished he could introduce us, but unfortunately the émigré sculptor had only just recently passed away. I was dubious and remained so until one day . . .
SIRANUSH SANDALDJIAN: My name is Siranush Sandaldjian.
LEVON SANDALDJIAN: And my name is Levon Sandaldjian and I’m the son of Hagop Sandaldjian.
WESCHLER: Who really did exist?
LEVON: He did.
SIRANUSH: He still does in our heart. (Laughs.)
WESCHLER: Levon and Siranush Sandaldjian proceeded to regale me with tales of their father’s creative process.
LEVON: Most of the work he would do would be at night, when everyone was asleep. He would work in between his heartbeats, because when his heart would beat, he would shake his hand.
SIRANUSH: And sometimes he had to hold his breath, these are little things we remember now, not to breath for a couple of minutes, or as long as he could hold it, because then what happens is suddenly a piece disappears.
WESCHLER: So go figure. And in the vertigo of all that figuring, you may find yourself, like me, launched out on an altogether more elaborate investigation than you may have originally intended.
That lady with the horn? Go to the library. Turns out it’s all true. Back in the 16th Century in a wonder cabinet outside of London, Mary Davis’s horn was on prominent display. As was a fruit stone carving with exactly the same dimensions and exactly the same description as the one in David’s museum.
That x-ray bat? Well, the eminent chiropterist Donald Griffin — Griffin by the way, not Griffith — does exist and is one of the foremost bat authorities in the world. But a bat that can fly through lead? No way. As for that spore inhaling, prong-sprouting ant — turns out that’s entirely true.
So, if wonder is the unifying theme of the Jurassic, it’s a special kind of wonder and it’s meta-stable. 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. And it’s that very shimmer, David seems to be saying, the capacity for such delicious confusion, that may constitute the most blessedly wonderful thing about being human.
Mulling all this over, as we wander the museum (David has disappeared once more), we bump once again into Harold Chambers, Director of Research, in the midst of his own journey.
CHAMBERS: I wondered some times . . . I wondered how much was David’s imagination or invention. But it doesn’t matter to me. It doesn’t matter. Because it’s a nice little museum. (Laughs quietly.)
WESCHLER: I’m Lawrence Weschler.