To finish out our weekend at AWP, we make our way to the museum, which is in Culver City around the corner from a surprisingly unassuming, corporate-looking Sony Studios lot. We leave the sun and heat and enter the eye-straining gloom of the museum. In the dark I find myself bowing down to read the peeling placards—pale text on black backgrounds—leaning so close my eyes hurt. The first exhibit I see is a glass box bearing a sign that reads, “Exhibit out of order.”
In the display case box are five glass dishes, each filled with a powder and labeled with numbers 1 through 5. Beneath the box is a legend: each number, it seems, correlates to a word.
One of the five glass dishes is smashed, glass dish number 5.
Lean closer, and you’ll see that number 5 is labeled “Reason.”
And so begins the immersive experience that is the Museum of Jurassic Technology, a world filled with the inescapable allure of the illogical and haunting sounds that pull you from room to room.
In a way, the Museum draws our attention to the experience of living in fiction. Is the exhibit with glass dishes truly out of order, or am I meant to interpret it as a symbol, a warning, that this is a place where reason is to be left at the door?
The magic of the Museum of Jurassic Technology is that its exhibits function like good fiction, perhaps even especially like good fairytales or well-done flash fiction. The placards present self-contained worlds; at the same time, we are invited to follow the narrative as it spirals beyond the displays in front of us, to consider implications and the logic of what remains unsaid.
Take, for instance, another display: in this glass case, there is a model bed, tiny and disheveled.
The caption reads: “A woman after childbirth is the most dangerous thing on earth. All sorts of uncanny things are around the mother and infant, and if she goes to a river to wash, the fish will go away.”
I found myself agreeing with this caption: yes, this conveys a certain truth. A woman after childbirth is a strange and dangerous thing; in giving birth, she has, as Maggie Nelson says, “touched death along the way.” It is no wonder that a person who has experienced such an uncanny thing could be said to drive the fish away.
The caption’s turn to the river is an unexpected turn, but one that feels natural. It’s an example of Kate Bernheimer’s “just-so stories”: because of the way the description is written, we as readers believe (we want to believe) that the events of the caption happened exactly as we’ve been told. That is, a woman has a child; a woman after childbirth is an uncanny thing; the uncanny woman thing drives the fish away.
Beyond telling a fiction (or is it?) in which we might recognize an aspect of human experience, this caption calls beyond itself and invites the visitor to contemplate the exhibit’s implications. For instance, for how long will a new mother keep the fish away? Is our uncanny woman supernatural in nature, able to pollute the river and banish the fish forever? Is it possible that the woman is simply a particularly aggressive bather, and her splashing scared the fish away?
Put aside the caption; consider again the stark display of the empty, unmade bed. Now we’re left wondering: for how long has our uncanny mother been gone?