THE INDEPENDENT VOICE OF THE VISUAL ARTS

 

Rumor Gives It: Encountering the Museum of Jurassic Technology in the Capitalocene

 

 

      “Teardrop” Mobile Home Diorama from “The Garden of Eden on Wheels” exhibit. Photo credit: Jennifer Bastian.

 

The light in Los Angeles always seems to be passing through a dusty film. While the streets and hills are lined with a mass of non-indigenous plants, the color they would suggest is muted, a rumor of a bright place.

Some confluence of drought, exhaust, ash, and pollen coats the cars that roll past of the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Culver City, a ten-mile drive west from downtown Los Angeles (a journey which, of course, can occupy between twenty and sixty minutes of your time depending on how many fellow motorists are accompanying you). It is not obviously a museum, but rather a squat green and gray building flush with other structures on either side, topped with faded red adobe roof tiles and, on its façade, a matching marquee announcing its name. There are no windows on the first floor, and its door, a surprising shade of teal, is offset to the right. Whenever I go with someone to the Museum for the first time, they typically ask me, upon arrival and before entering: “Is this it?”

The Museum of Jurassic Technology has hidden in plain sight since 1988 with little to draw your attention, its name eluding easy explanation. If it’s a museum, it boasts none of the pomp and reverence that you may expect to find when approaching its threshold; it doesn’t hail you from afar, it doesn’t assert itself spatially. To the extent that it’s concerned with the Jurassic, one supposes that in an urban market with a high rate of rivalrous turnover, thirty years of presence is relatively ancient—yet there is not a dinosaur in sight. And as a purveyor of technology, the Museum eschews neon enticement for two pairs of small lamps, one pair to light its marquee and the other to highlight the small, waterless fountain that occupies two-thirds of the outer wall (the doorway, notably, is unlit); these are joined by a final lamp whose light falls upon a vertical banner depicting the Museum’s logo, a pale, mask-like face, and a reiteration of its name. All of this is to say that given the manner in which the Museum is instantiated, its viability as a destination in a city filled with competitive spectacle doesn’t appear to make sense. So, when you find yourself about to enter the Museum of Jurassic Technology, you may ask yourself, in the words of David Byrne: “How did I get here?”

 

    Museum of Jurassic Technology Facade
—9341 Venice Blvd. in Culver City. Photo credit: Jennifer Bastian.

 

The most frequent explanation I have heard is that one arrives at the Museum because one has heard a rumor: “I think the whole thing is the work of one guy and his wife”; “I couldn’t tell what was real and gave up trying”; “It’s making fun of museums”; “It’s a proposal for what museums should be”; “A dog lives on the second floor.” You don’t come to the Museum because it persuaded you to do so; you come to the Museum because you saw a look in your friend’s eyes and heard a tone in their voice. Unlike other museums, which traffic in marketing, expensive programming, and the promise of transferable cultural capital, the Museum’s allure is in the retelling of the experiences shared by its visitors. In this way, upon the invocation of the Museum’s name and before you’ve taken even a single step inside, you are already participating in the Museum’s sociality, a thirty-year performance in the circulation not of objective knowledge, but of communal curiosity.

But enough preamble; let’s take that single step and encounter what is contained within. Despite the Museum’s apparent disregard for the imperatives of capitalist self-promotion, its first room is a ticket counter and a small gift shop packed with oddities that one imagines will be given context in the moments to come. The light is dim but warm and, by the time you’ve rounded the first corner past the counter to the right, you are already beginning to realize mystery within specificity: set into the wall behind glass is an oblong wooden box with an ellipsoidal cutaway revealing what appear to be rooms and passages inside, accompanied by a small brass plaque reading “Noah’s Ark, scale 1 inch = 12.5 cubits” with no additional detail or explanation.

 

    Model of Noah's Ark at the Museum of Jurassic Technology. Photo credit: Museum of Jurassic Technology.

 

This initial encounter with one of the Museum’s many objects, texts, displays, and films acts as a microcosm of the Museum itself, a metaphor for how one is “to be” within the space. There is a signification of knowledge, but it is a lost knowledge that cannot be recovered, only reimagined; you must invent its significance for yourself. That is to say, you have entered a labyrinth that will keep you captive only so long as you choose to wander within its walls. And make no mistake—the Museum of Jurassic Technology is a maze, one that seems to exceed the spatial dimensions of the building you witnessed outside just moments before. To navigate the Museum is to be engaged in repeated surprise as a narrow passageway opens into a dark room filled with microscopes, or as the haunting ringing of bells draws your gaze to a doorway you had missed the first time you passed it. There are clusters of tall wooden display cases with corded telephone receivers hanging from the sides, buttons at the ready to provide tremendously specific details about ambiguous historical happenings. If you travel to the back of the Museum, you will discover a permanent exhibit titled “Tell the Bees: Belief, Knowledge, and Hypersymbolic Cognition,” which houses an elaborate assortment of folk maladies and their remedies.

Throughout the Museum, there are benches at which you may rest while you observe films discussing the surrounding objects, including a biography of Hagop Sandaldjian, an Armenian-Egyptian violinist who also created “microminiatures,” small, painted models of famous figures affixed to the eyes of needles (you can see Goofy, Napoleon, and the Pope in the displays next to the film).

 

Detail view of Duck's Breath from the exhibit “Tell the Bees: Belief, Knowledge, and Hypersymbolic Cognition.” Photo credit: Museum of Jurassic Technology.

 

While I could describe in greater detail the other strange matters on the first floor of the Museum (additional exhibits include titles such as “The Garden of Eden On Wheels: Collections from Los Angeles Area Mobile Home Parks,” “Rotten Luck: The Decaying Dice of Ricky Jay,” and “The Floral Radiographs of Albert G Richards”), in some ways, description seems to defeat the experience of a visit. When you visit the Museum of Jurassic Technology, you are choosing to abide ambiguity, to succumb to circuity, and to confront your assumptions about what it means to “know something.”

For although you pay for admission at the door, the experience of walking through the Museum undermines the capitalist covenant of transaction and consumption. In a traditional museum, one feels pressure to preemptively analyze a floor plan of exhibits and to strategize the most efficient path past the most “valuable” cultural artifacts; one is on a mission to acquire and accumulate experience (a mandate that is often accompanied by copious picture taking). In the Museum of Jurassic Technology, not only are you not permitted to take pictures inside, but there is no map other than the one you develop in your memory; it is quite possible, perhaps likely, that you will miss things that would have surprised you and that you will be surprised by the things that you can’t recall how you found.

 

     Detail view of a microminiature sculpture of Goofy by Hagop Sandaldjian. Photo credit: Museum of Jurassic Technology.

 

The Museum seems designed to defeat one-off accumulation and instead to promote a kind of cyclicity where any given trip is a study not in objects, but in the process of encounter and reencounter. To try to optimize your visit, to bilk each instant of its value, is to resist the fluidity that the Museum offers; this is a place of wandering and wondering where the metered cost of time is best forgotten.

This radically destabilizing way of “consuming content” undermines the greatest imperatives of life in the Capitalocene, the historical moment where neoliberalism has become the prevailing global hegemonic order: where a museum would be designed to direct traffic in a rigorous flow, to accommodate the greatest volume of customers, the Museum of Jurassic Technology is full of soft collisions and lingering; where a museum is governed by the promotion and rotation of exhibits and programming, the Museum is a continuum of subtle changes and curious details that emerge only on repeated visits; where a museum’s wall didactics would suggest conclusions, the Museum’s exhibits spiral out in a proliferation of new questions. This is to say, at the Museum of Jurassic Technology, one feels out-of-time, if not out-of-capital.

On the second floor of the Museum (which is hidden up a set of stairs off of a hallway containing working replicas of old dynamic theater sets), after you pass the “Lives of Perfect Creatures: Dogs of the Soviet Space Program” exhibit (featuring portraits of dogs who heroically sacrificed their lives in the service of early space exploration), you finally arrive at the tea room, where an attendant generously offers you hot tea and light cookies. You may lounge in one of the cushioned chairs or, perhaps, drift out to the rooftop garden with its population of cautious-yet-restful birds. Sometimes there will be old dogs sleeping on the ground; sometimes there will be a man playing music on an arcane-looking instrument. You’ll notice other visitors assessing their surroundings and talking quietly, as if they are sharing secrets (though not jealously, but rather as a courtesy to other guests, so as to not foreclose diverse imaginings of the place). It’s difficult to leave the garden, which is where I seem to inevitably spend my last moments at the Museum before returning home, wondering if the birds ever feel like leaving.

 

Rooftop Garden and Colonnade at the Museum of Jurassic Technology. Photo credit: Museum of Jurassic Technology.

 

Back on the street, I’m usually disoriented, unsure of how much of the day has passed and somewhat disappointed that time has become a concern once more. Once, as we headed to my car to rejoin the community of commuters, a friend asked me: “What just happened?” I don’t recall what I said, but I heard a rumor that it went something like this.

 

Benjamin Nicholson

 

Benjamin Nicholson is a PhD student in Media Arts + Practice at the University of Southern California. He can be found around Los Angeles giving performative PowerPoint presentations, discussing corpses, and sharing potatoes with friends and strangers alike.

 

 

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