Considering Audience at the Museum of Jurassic Technology

While Lindsay and I were in LA for AWP, we made a pilgrimage to what I can only call my own personal version of paradise: the Museum of Jurassic Technology.

If you’re not familiar with David Wilson’s extraordinary museum, do everything in your power rectify this right away! You’re seriously missing out. If you aren’t going to be visiting LA anytime soon, pick up a copy of Lawrence Weschler’s excellent book about the museum, Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder.

The MJT is difficult to describe, but just imagine a dim, dated-looked museum squeezed into an unassuming storefront in Culver City. What seems at first to be some dusty provincial museum turns out to be crowded with the beautiful and the bizarre: a case of antique pipes, 3-D presentations about Athanasius Kircher,  dioramas of trailer parks, portraits of Soviet canine astronauts, and a rooftop columbarium. Some of the artifacts displayed are real. Some are entirely fabricated. Others still are half-true, facts stretched beyond the limits of reality, accurate information presented in intentionally misleading contexts. The MJT is a seamless and often unsettling blending of fact and fiction, and a riveting exploration of the role museums play in our cultural imagination.

Unsurprisingly, the MJT can be a confusing experience. Even those who come in knowing what to expect may have a hard time parsing the factual from the fantastic, and for those who arrive without any background or context, it’s downright disorienting. Chances are that in the course of your visit, you’ll hear more than one person turn to a companion and say, “Wait, is this for real?” Maybe one of those people will be you.

Personally, I find this confusion delightful. I love the uncertainty the museum produces: is this exhibit displaying fake artifacts about real people, or real artifacts about fake people? This is exactly the kind of bewilderment that delights me as a reader, and that I hope my own writing produces in readers. For my part, I am fascinated by the effect this kind of commingling of the real and the unreal can achieve–in the wonder their combination elicits in me.

But it’s definitely not everyone’s cup of tea. If the museum’s Yelp reviews are anything to go by, a lot of people just don’t get it. They go through the MJT like they would any other museum–treating its exhibits as fact.

For me, this raises some interesting questions about how audiences respond to challenging, difficult-to-categorize art — whether it’s a museum or a work of fiction. Most writers, at one time or another, have had the experience of sharing their work with someone who didn’t understand it at all, and it’s a plight that’s particularly common amongst writers who work on their weirder end of the spectrum. Maybe it was a well-intentioned relative, or that dude with a man-bun in your intermediate workshop, or even an instructor, but unless you’re very lucky, chances are you’ve encountered readers, in one form or another, who fundamentally misunderstand the project of your work. What my experience at the MJT got me thinking about is this: Does it really matter if someone doesn’t get it? Does the audience need to understand the author’s intentions in order to appreciate the work? Does a story, or museum, need to make sense? Are these necessary conditions for “success”, whatever that means?

In the case of the MJT, I would say understanding is almost entirely beside the point. There’s plenty of room at the table for people who “misread” the MJT as a conventional museum. In fact, it may not even be fair to call it “misreading”, since the MJT seems designed to deliberately cultivate such misunderstandings. David Wilson’s exhibits intentionally muddy the waters. To my mind, the MJT is much more about the wonder of museum-going than it is about parsing fact from fiction. The goal, as I see it, is to experience something extraordinary. It doesn’t seem to matter if we leave the museum confused, or uncertain, or even believing untrue information, as long as our visit has amazed us in some way.

In many respects, I feel the same is true for writing weird fiction. As painful as it can be to have one’s intentions misunderstood by our audience, I’m not sure that understanding is really the goal. Does the reader need to understand what the haunting represents metaphorically in order to be unsettled by a ghost story? Probably not. Does it make a difference if I know unequivocally why Alice begins to levitate in Barbara Comyns’ wonderful novel The Vet’s Daughter? Ultimately, it doesn’t matter what I make of that moment, because the image is so extraordinarily powerful and the event affects the narrative regardless of whether I “get it” or not. While weird fiction isn’t necessarily free from the constraints of “sense” and psychological accuracy we impose on realist writing, those expectations can sometimes be beside the point.

None of this is to say that the audience’s experience is irrelevant. What we take away from a story, or an exhibit, is, of course, important. But I think one of the particular joys of the weird, something it excels at especially well, is that it makes room for the audience’s efforts to find make meaning, embracing that uncertainty–even finding wonder in it.

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