Sunday, May 8, 2011

Hanging out with David Wilson at the Museum of Jurassic Technology

As you'll recall, the venerable Johannes Braümeister and I, Sanschontz, are currently teaching a class together called Artworlds. What, we ask, is the art-world? How does it develop historically? Who or what are its principle players? By what means do they assign value, meaning or art-status to certain objects, spaces or behaviors?

Because questions like those could get out of hand pretty quickly, we approach the theoretical problem through the case at hand. That is, we use  modern and contemporary Los Angeles as our laboratory,  teaching nearly three quarters of our course sessions "in the field." The aim is to introduce the students to various LA art-world sites through theoretical/historical readings, on-site study and often, if we are lucky, meetings with key figures. This past Saturday, we had such a serendipitous meeting with none other than David Wilson, founder of the famous Museum of Jurassic Technology.

If you've managed to find your way to this humble blog, I should probably assume that you need an explanation of neither what the Museum with Jurassic Technology (MJT) is nor why it might be interesting to think about in relation to studying the artworld. But, just to be on the safe side ... the MJT looks like a banal storefront from the street. Inside, however, is a dark, strange mash-up of wunderkammer, house of horrors, and movie theater, offered as both ode to and satire of the history of museums.

After fumbling our way through the dark warren of display spaces, our group eventually gathered in the Russian tea room on the second floor where Wilson came to meet us. Asked by one of the students how the MJT began, Wilson went into story-telling mode and delivered a narrative which is admirably set out in Lawrence Weschler's charming book on the MJT, Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Wonder. Here is the basic story as Weschler quotes it from Wilson:

"Well, the seed material ... came down to us through the collection of curiosities originally gathered by the Thums—that's Owen Thum and his son, Owen Thum the Younger, who were botanists, or I guess really just gardeners in southwestern Nebraska, in South Platte. ... [This was] in the first half of the century—say, the twenties for the father, and on into the fifties with Owen the Younger. But then a man named Gerard Bilius essentially stole the material. It's a complicated story, but Bilius was a man with money, also from Nebraska ... he saw some value in the collection and he befriended Owen the Younger—who, let's face it, was a kind of bumpkin, not very sophisticated—and he got Owen the Younger to write a deed of gift to him, Billius, into his will. Billius was a lawyer. As the years passed, Owen the Younger and his wife, Hester, began to sense Billius's true nature and they tried to retract the deed ... [but] it all ended with her drowned in the backyard pool under highly suspicious circumstances." (Weschler, 30-1)

I quote this story at some length as it true ... but in a strange way. I'm sure you've already picked up on it. That is, the events described—where a father and son who are gardeners (or green "Thums") and who share the same first name establish a collection of rarities only to be swindled by a lawyer, dragged into extensive litigation such that the younger gardener's wife named Hester ends up drowned in the backyard pool—all this happened not in the 1920s - '50s, but three hundred years earlier. The characters involved were famed gardeners John Tradescant, Elder and Younger, Hester Pookes Tradescant and the devious lawyer was none other than Elias Ashmole, founder of Oxford's Ashmolean Museum.

So, as Wilson is telling this story, I began to feel like I was getting some insight into the ways and workings of the MJT itself. What is being said or shown is "true" in a sense—it bears some kind of factual relationship to historical events, cultural beliefs and natural processes. But, the terms of that relation—the ways in which a given statement is true—are highly peculiar. They undermine or defamiliarize the conventions by which we expect to be able to rely upon institutions, authorities and our perceptions to know things such that we are thrown back into negotiation with doubt. Or, as Wilson put it, nominally speaking of the visible illumination of the display area itself but no doubt talking about other matters: "Things seen dimly are often best perceived." Maybe, to take something that has been on my mind of late, the Museum presents truths in the oblique, scrambled ways that dreams do. But, that's probably a topic for another time.

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