Immersed in the Fiction of the Museum of Jurassic Technology

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?

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.