Saturday, June 22, 2013

Field Trip LA! - The Museum of Jurassic Technology

series of posts from visiting interesting little (and large) cafes, food-related establishments and other places of inspiration.

Following on from the post about the hotel we stayed at, another place that felt like it was from a different time and place was a museum not too far away from Santa Monica in Culver City - The Museum of Jurassic Technology. A tip-off from a learned friend, I'll admit my first thought was along the lines of 'Dinosaurs didn't have technology..' but trusting my friend would know better, and after a skim of their abstruse and intriguing website, I decided it must be worth a visit. I'm so glad I went.

Spotted from across the street after a little hunting near a park with those beautiful purple flowering trees I saw everywhere in LA, we thought it must be closed. No windows, no lights or signs flashing "open", just a fountain and a big heavy door. We pushed... and stepped into the darkness. Eyes adjusting from the bright Californian sun outside (what theatre!) we discerned the reception desk and confessed to not knowing much about where we were.

Having a hungry, not-yet 1 year old infant in tow, we were kindly directed to the "tea room and courtyard" at the top of the building. Navigating a dark pathway past mysterious exhibits in glass cabinets, paintings and projections, we emerged at the top of the building, again into brightness, into a magical roof garden of cornices and ferns, doves, a reflecting pool, lamps and flowers.

Rooftop hanging garden

Sunlight streamed into the Persian style garden around banners of white fabric as one person was reading quietly and another was playing a nyckelharpa.

As with the garden, with the baby now fed we discovered that the rest of the museum is an evident labour of love. Founded in 1988 by David (the above nyckelharpist, we later learned!) and Diana Wilson and evolving since, it felt like a strange mix of science, art, literature and superstition. There is an exhibit on the Soviet dogs who were sent into space, along with an interactive sniffable Proust vitrine, a couple of rooms about cat's cradles and instruction on how to tell the temper of a person from a strand of their hair.

The slideshow at the entrance (which we listened to last, of course) reminds us that "in its 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." This is a museum that encourages engaged wonder and skepticism, even about the business of being a museum itself, as opposed to a more passive reception of dogma. It won't tell you what to think - the only things you are told explicitly are where you can enjoy the refreshments provided, and not to take photos (the moment I realised this I put away my camera!).

Wholly civilised guidance

Many exhibits were participatory with buttons to press and moving parts, projections that started up at intervals, their sound layering, and lots of bending forward to look into viewing screens or microscopes. One simple presentation choice I particularly liked was the listening stations. These were a couple of black corded phone receivers hung next to various exhibits in the dimness. When you put one to your ear to listen to more about a display, it became an intimate experience that felt like listening to a person speaking directly to you. The voice was hushed, calmly but keenly relating information like a speech-based radio presenter. Quite a different experience to the usual one of walking around a white cube gallery with an ear piece.

Coming through this museum in the 'proper' way then, via a long trail of discovery through the labyrinthine exhibition rooms, reaching the dazzling garden on the roof must feel particularly transcendent. I imagine that each visitor will come away with an experience unique to them and will form their own narrative about the museum, and this was mine. For a more detailed take, have a look at this post or try this frustratedly baffled article ("The exhibit is untitled. There is no explanatory text.") from the LA Times. :)

I look forward to returning, to delight in more of the curiosities it holds and to be “guided along, as it were, a chain of flowers into the mysteries of life” (Charles Willson Peale, from the museum's introduction and background)

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