Return to the Cabinet of Wonder

1 July, 2005

This week, I'm down in LA on vacation visiting family and friends for the Fourth. Coincidentally Sonya is down here simultaneously for a job interview so I volunteered to take her to that and show her around a little. Since we were already at the Sony lot, for Sonya's interveiw with a reality TV producer, I thought we should head over to the Museum of Jurassic Technology, which is right near by, on Venice.

Having nothing whatsoever to do with dinosaurs, the MJT is a tiny, dark, storefront museum in the style of the cabinets of curiosities and mixed princely collections of art, crafts, and natural wonders that were the predecessors of the modern public museum. It's exhibits, ranging from a collection of letters sent to the Mount Wilson Observatory to microscopic collages made with butterfly wings and dragonfly scales to a series of illustrations of traditional folk remedies to a display on the allegorical meaning of the work of the great sixteenth century engineer Athanasius Kircher.

I first heard of the place in a class on the History and Theory of the Museum I took my junior year in college. We read Wren Weschler's book on the museum, Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Wonders.

The summer after that class, when I was back home in LA, I paid my first visit. I was wandering around The Garden of Eden on Wheels (an exhibit on mobile homes), when, thinking it led to another gallery, I walked through a door that opened into a combination storage room and repair shop, lined with metal shelves teetering with all manner of junk and mechanical sections of the innerworkings of various exhibits splayed out on work tables, a room I would soon learn was nicknamed "stinky hollow" because of its former use as a forensic lab and its lasting formaldehyde stench.

After poking around a bit, I went back out into the museum proper, finished my visit, went home and wrote them a letter in which I included my resume. I ended up working there for the rest of the summer as a grant writer. Because of the museum's tiny size, I worked directly with the it's founder, David Wilson, his wife Diana, and their assistant Kelly who managed much of the museum's practical affairs. Almost immediately, I was researching and writing grants for potential exhibits, like a series of vectorgraphs David wanted to make of stereographic x-rays of flowers made by a local dentist named Al Richards, and even helping to brainsorm and plan new ones, specifically an exhibit on string art traditions from around the world. The following fall, when I returned to Reed, I helped bring David up to speak at RAW, the school's annual arts festival. Though I tried my best to keep in touch with Kelly and the Wilsons by helping out with a couple of grants via email during the following year at Reed, we'd graudally fallen out of touch during the last couple of years.

So, when Sonya and I entered the museum, I had no idea if David would remember me or if Kelly still even worked there. After showing Sonya around all the exhibits, we went upstairs to the newly completed Russian Tea Room (which was still part office part construction zone in my last memory). It turned out that a group of staff and interns from the Natural History Musueum were there on a tour and had simultaneously gathered in the tea room to talk to David. When he came in, he turned out not only to remember me, but he knew precisely the things I'd worked on (including the portraits of cosmonaut dogs about to arrive for the lobby of the movie theatre), was (overly) effusive in praising my work to the gathered group, and invited Sonya and I to stick around afterwards so he could show us the currently under-construction string art exhibit (opening September 15th), which I'd worked on.

The best part was something he showed us that I'd missed while walking around downstairs. Passed the door through which I'd once accidentally wandered on my first visit now lay two new exhibits: one of decaying cellulose dice donated by magician and actor Ricky Jay and the other: Al Richards' x-ray flowers, the first project I'd worked on durng my internship, now real. Vectography is a process invented by Polaroid whereby a seemingly three dimensional image is produced by printing two slighly horizonyally separated images on sheets of differently polarized material and then affixing both of them to reverse sides of a common clear substrate. The result is plates that look a lot like dentist's x-rays. But when you look at them through 3d-glasses with properly polarized lenses the the images explode with vertiginous depth.

Sonya and I slowly walked around the room with 3d-glasses on long poles like costume ball masks as each of the flowers lit up in front front of us one by one as we passed, diaphonous, transparent, and real.

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