Wednesday, December 15, 2021

Advent 2021, Dec 15, Darcy Jay Gagnon: Mr. Weschler’s Cabinet of Wonder

After Lawrence Weschler’s “Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder.”

Cranes (grues) take their name from the murmuring sound they make. Cranes are continuously at war with the race of Pygmies, hostilities cease only when the cranes leave. During flight, cranes attain unusual heights and unlike other birds, they fly both night and day. When the cranes are about to leave Thrace, they assemble in rank and order. Before the flock finally leaves, the oldest of the cranes flies about in a circle three times, after which he falls down and dies of exhaustion, to be buried by the others. After this ceremony, the rest take flight toward Africa to spend the winter. M. Martial and Falvius Cassiodorus (bizarre name!) both affirm that the entire Greek alphabet was obtained from the flight of cranes.

And the leader of the company compelleth the company to fly aright, crying as it were blaming with his voice. And if it hap that he wax hoarse, then another crane cometh after him, and taketh the same office. And after they fall to the earth crying, for to rest, and when they sit on the ground, to keep and save them, they ordain watches that they may rest the more surely, and the wakers stand upon one foot, and each of them holdeth a little stone in the other foot, high from the earth, that they may be waked by falling of the stone, if it hap that they sleep.

-Batholomaeus Anglicus (13th century CE), De proprietatibus rerum, Book 12.
J.F.M. Hoeniger (General Microbiology 32:30, 1965) suggests that the explanation for the practice of administering ants eggs to one afflicted with (and designing to fall out of) love lies in the chemical composition of ants eggs or more precisely ant pupae. The sack or membranous tissue, which encloses the pupae, contains measurable quantities of the naloxone hydrochloride that exhibits marked anendorphic (endorphin inhibiting) qualities by effectively blocking the opioid receptor site in the brain without producing the agonististic response (cell excitation), which typically results from the endorphin bond with the receptor sites produced in the “love” or other endorphin producing states.

A dog cures its own wounds by licking, and a young dog bound to a patient cures internal wounds.

The dog of a condemned prisoner that refused to leave its master tried to put food in the dead man’s mouth, and when the corpse was thrown in the river, tried to keep it afloat.

When a man was murdered and there were no witnesses to say who did it, the man’s dog pointed out the slayer in the crowd.

A dog will always return to its vomit and a dog that crosses a hyena’s shadow will lose its voice.

These are just some of the many facts you can explore at The Museum of Jurassic Technology, a small building of dark brick that looks out of place among the light tans and otherwise chromatic structures that occupy much of Los Angeles, even out in Culver City, where the museum is located— a suburban sprawl adjacent to the boutique-filled Venice Beach and about 20 minutes south of most of the tourist destinations in Hollywood.

As is the case in most of Los Angeles, the museum shares the corner of its block with a yoga studio, and across the street there is a bookstore that specializes in the romance genre called The Ripped Bodice. There is a bus stop directly in front of the museum and an In-and-Out Burger further up the block.

As you open the heavy, sturdy door to the museum, there is an immediate feeling of voyeurism, as the darkly lit room on the other side causes one to second guess whether the museum is open or closed. It is in fact, open, and you enter into a gift shop that is well stocked if not a bit claustrophobic (which perhaps mirrors a sense of the museum to come). The museum clerk—a late 20-something man, very academic-looking with oval spectacles, who is most likely a writer like me and probably gay— confirms the reservation for my boyfriend (Tommy) and me, accepts our fee (10 dollars or something), and requests no photography as he ushers us into the museum with a smile that seems to hide a secret.

Inside, the museum is labyrinthine, with tight walls and no clear pattern. The rooms are separated by exhibit— some longstanding and some rotating. At the moment, two of rotating exhibits are dioramas of campers (the vehicle/house kind) and the history of Cat’s Cradle. Here are some of the things you might encounter immediately, however, which I will try to recall from memory (since photography is not allowed):

A brass machine, about 3 feet high, that to me looks like a steampunk version of a moonshine still, except that its only current function seems to be that of a little hammer, which lightly bashes against a marble-sized sphere every second or so.

A mounted beetle carapace, next to which is telephone receiver-like apparatus that looks like it belongs to a much older museum. If you lift it, a buzzing sound that could be a recording of the mounted beetle in front of you or is maybe just someone going bzzzzzzz.

A vitrine with three madeleine cookies in them, one of which has a bite taken out of it. In this vitrine there are also three tubes that lead to three holes covered by a thin, quarter-sized sheet of metal, with a button below each that seemed to do nothing when we pressed it. For about a minute, Tommy and I tampered with the thin covering, moving it aside while looking over our shoulder, not sure if we were dismantling the case or using it as intended, and once more pressed the button to receive nothing more than a pneumatic puff of air.

An aquarium-sized vitrine containing a serious-looking apparatus, crouched over several hovering platforms with tiny mounds of powder perched on microscope glass. The five platforms are labeled “Possession, “Delusion,” “Paranoaia,” “Schizophrenia,” and “Reason,” though the platform labeled “Reason” looks as if the apparatus has smashed into it and there lies a combination of glass and dust at the bottom of the vitrine. Unlike many of the previous displays, this one comes with a small sign that simply says “out of order.”

“By this time, you too may be starting to feel a bit out of order, all shards and powder,” writes Lawrence Weschler in his book Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder, and sure enough, Tommy and I were giving each other “umm, what exactly is this place” glances.

Weschler’s book profiles David Wilson, the co-founder of the museum (with his wife), who he claims had found a way with the Museum of Jurassic Technology to induce a sense of fascination paired with “a distinct undercurrent of perturbation.”

Of course, not having yet read the book, I was not aware of this when we visited the museum that day. In fact, we had only planned to because Tommy and I had both received separate recommendations from colleagues to visit it, but neither one of us were given context as to why or what exactly “Jurassic Technology” is [1].

So, when the clerk recommended that we watch an instructional slideshow just beyond the entrance, we didn’t think to question that decision, despite the old-timey video technology being “Jurassic” in the sense of the term we had misunderstood (and still fail to understand, it seems).
In the original sense, the term ‘museum’ meant a spot dedicated to the Muses—'a place where man’s mind could attain a mood of aloofness above everyday affairs.’ By far the most important museum of antiquity was the great institution at Alexandria founded by Ptolemy Philadelphius in the third century before Christ (an endeavor supported by a grant from the Treasury). And no treatment of the museum would be complete without mention of Noah’s Ark in which we find the most complete Museum of Natural History the world has ever seen.

For the next five minutes or so, we were barraged with this history and philosophy of the museum, which Weschler describes as “at times stupefyingly specific, at other times maddeningly vague.” Indeed, there was an unspoken sense of conflict occurring in both of us at that moment, as we wondered if we accidently walked past the slideshow that actually explained what this museum is, if this was supposed to be some kind of joke that we weren’t getting, or if this was simply a test of our patience and fast-food culture of instant gratification.

And this would be a theme to come, not just for us, but I imagine for many of the other museum-goers, who moved about the small dark rooms in whispers, not quite laughing (or knowing if they were allowed to laugh), and not exactly sure how to interact with the museum’s descriptions or exhibits, whether to treat them as serious or silly, each probably having their own internal tug of wars with their sense of irony.

“Part of the assigned task is to reintegrate people to wonder,” Wilson says in Cabinet, which is what this format continues to do today as we are lifted out of our comfort zone, without handholding, and forced to question the legitimacy of anything we see or read and to further question that desire to question.

“It’s like a museum, a critique of museums, and a celebration of museums—all rolled into one,” said Marcia Tucker, the former Director of the New Museum in New York. Others related it to performance art. Though, through Weschler’s profile, we learn that the museum’s curator is mostly interested in a sense of earnestness, which is reinforced after Weschler spends too much time trying to track down some of the museum’s more improbable and aloof claims to find them grounded in some arcane text or equally eccentric source.

Weschler’s discussion of the museum focuses on this goal of reintegrating people to wonder, and how that sense of wonder throughout time has led to many of the ideas presented in the museum itself. However, visiting the museum at the end of the year 2021—knowing that there is a 26-year-old book written about it that was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize, and knowing that there is apparently significant word-of-mouth about the museum based on how we arrived there—I was mostly shocked that the museum has not only kept this sense of wonder alive, but authentically so.

In other words, the fact that something so endeared for so long can still leave one surprised is so rare these days, and the fact that, even still, the museum stands true to never breaking form, or as Weschler calls it, “breaking from irony.” Sure, the gift shop is a bit more filled out. There are certainly more than the one or two other museum-goers that Weschler described in 1995, and the price has jumped from $4.50 to $10, but on the whole, there is still no handholding, no gimmicks, no obnoxious marketing campaign. Just like 1995, the museum feels unapologetic in a world where authentic experiences are quickly capitalized upon and exploited, especially when it comes to art.

And perhaps an apt example occurred fifteen minutes before Tommy and I stepped into the museum at all, when, arriving a bit earlier than expected for our reserved timeslot, we decided to pick up lunch from the nearby In-N-Out Burger, one of those LA gemstones that’s mythos has been reinforced by the likes of Anthony Bourdain, Gordan Ramsey, and the Coen Brothers, only to find that the drive-thru line wrapped around the block and employees had set up ordering stations along the customized traffic pattern through the parking lot. Especially coming from a city (though not this city), it made me wonder if there are truly any authentic experiences left if even fast-food has been memed into tourist culture, a kind of culture-death.

So as much as the Museum of Jurassic Technology seems to be testing the lifespan of wonder, we can also look at it as testing the lifespan of authenticity. And of earnestness. And though you, reader, may now never enter the museum without context and be able to experience the legitimate WTF-is-this mentality (I have ruined that for you sorry), there is at least something to experience in the shock of being able to be shocked at all anymore.

So, go figure [2].

[1] “I think it’s, like, technology that used to be used for something but is now interestingly out of date,” we theorized to each other in the car on the way to the museum, which is somewhat true if not a bit of a simplification.

[2] And I did, as I break now from the prompt to juxtapose my In-N-Out anecdote with a different kind of tale, but also from the same day. For dinner, Tommy and I want to LA’s Korea Town, which, after a dinner of noodles, stepped next door for a second dinner, seeing that a small, hole-in-the-wall Korean restaurant specialized in raw, marinated crab, a dish we had both heard about but is hard to find on the east coast, probably because it requires a live kind of Charybdis crab native to southern Korea, but of a genus known throughout the Indo-Pacific region and from the Straight of Messina off of the coast of Sicily, where Charybdis, the sea creature whose ancestor is Poseidon, lives in a whirlpool created by voracious thirst.

Record of the dish originates as early as the 17th century and is mentioned for its ability to drive away fever due to its “cold” property by the Korean scholar Jeong Yak-jong (정약전) in his book “Fishes of the Huksan Island,” one of the 500 or so volumes he, after returning from exile, wrote in a room he called “Sauijae,” or the room of four obligations, which were: clear thinking, serious appearance, quiet talking, and sincere actions. Yak-jong was also responsible for popularizing a resurgence of tea drinking in Korea.

Marinated raw crab is sometimes nicknamed bapdoduk, or "a rice thief" due to its filling flavor, which is exactly how I felt experiencing ultra-savory tomalley inside the crab, which we call the “mustard” in my native Maryland, where the local and daring eat this hepatopancreas ooze that intermingles with all the other questionable guts and has the kind of roundness of flavor you might expect from liver.

This is a legendary dish, and one crab is basically all you need to feel full (“rice thief”…), which we plucked and slurped and savored over for almost 45 minutes at a restaurant where we were one of a handful of patrons, seated immediately, served just as quick, paid cash, went home with the earthy flavor of several centuries on our tongues.

Darcy Jay Gagnon is a writer based out of Washington D.C., an MFA graduate from George Mason University, and a nonfiction features editor at The Rumpus. He is presently working on a lyric biography of Matsuo Basho, but also writes about music and birds. You can find his other work at The Rumpus, Entropy, and here.

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