STORIES

Mystified and High at L.A.’s Museum of Jurassic Technology

By Charlie Tetiyevsky on May 11, 2017

I waited for the credit card I’d forgotten, like a dumbass, at this boutique hotel in WeHo and surreptitiously unwrapped one of those weed gummies with cute packaging that suggests a beginner should consider taking not so much. I popped three quarters of the 100 mg “Flavor: Strawberry” into my mouth, the pungency of cannabis oil and terpenes stinging my esophagus. The hotel lobby was flush with gold animals and climbing vines, the sort of place that a sultan might live if he were strongly interested in horticulture and maintaining a porcelain menagerie. I didn’t fit in.

I slipped back into my best friend’s Honda, and she drove to the UPS Store. “Be chill,” she said, knowing full well how high I was. I was indignant: “I’m always chill, I’m an adult.” We lined up at the counter, behind which three rows of shipping boxes were tacked up on the wall as if they were just floating there, cardboard neatly wrapped in the condition you’d imagine perfect people would send their packages. Care Package from Cousins Margaret and Joan, that kind of thing. My best friend smiled at me like I’d said something stupid, and I mumbled that I should probably keep quiet. “Probably,” she replied.

It had only been 10 minutes, but the edible was kicking in already, and I was feeling it visually in the way that you do when you smoke cannabis for the third or fourth time as a teenager: an immersive submersion into to an altered world, the kind of proper high that a medical tolerance usually withholds from you. Being high on edibles is probably the closest experience I can remember having to those depicted in television and movies—the classic scene where a smoke session devolves into some set of psychedelic visuals with dumb commentary in the background. That was me. I was the dumb commentary.

The Museum of Jurassic Technology was a few blocks from my friend’s workshop on the part of Venice Boulevard that’s mainly closed-down furniture shops and attempts to beautify underpasses that have regardless been made into beds. The MJT is the sort of place you don’t necessarily want to know about before you go, and it’s an institution for which no preface is given. But a little curious digging reveals that it’s essentially a meta-project made in the late ʼ90s that is all about the experience of going to a museum and trying to pry it apart. Some of the exhibits are verifiable and lay definitively somewhere on either side of the line separating truth from near-truth, a distinction that has arguably already been blurred for most of the public as of late—just not in this format. Before heading to the museum, I ate the last quarter of the edible because, I don’t know, if you’re going to get really high to do a thing, you should probably get really high to do it. 

The museum’s front was nondescript, a squat two-floored building draped with ivy that made it look like a cross between that WeHo hotel and the BDSM dungeon next to my friend’s place. Like any other museum, you enter onto a gift shop, but there are no maps or visitors' guides. You’re not given any particular order in which to tackle exhibits or view them, and there are no tours. Every dark walkway is so achingly narrow that it seems to almost be a joke on maintaining distance between yourself, others and the glass cases. 

The museum, a place I once remember being described as a collection of “cabinets of curiosities,” doesn’t allow cell phone use of any kind, and I can safely say it was the first time in ages that I didn’t look at my phone for more than two hours. It makes sense, too. The museum contains an astounding amount of information, giving the feeling not so much of viewing exhibits as of entering into an encyclopedia. It’s like a Ripley’s Believe it or Not exhibit in that you’re unsure of what to take in as truth and what is so ridiculous that it might well be concocted. None of this is written anywhere in the museum or on its website, so many viewers are left not knowing what they’re getting themselves into.

I went right at the museum’s opening. It was just me, high off my rocker, and a confused couple making their way around.

The first exhibit I walked into focused on a man who had toiled over microscopes to make incredibly small mosaics of flower bouquets using butterfly “scales.” I leaned into the microscope to look at the “micromosaics.” They were, for all intents and purposes, impressively miniature and shiny. But there was something about the “butterfly” material that immediately struck me as both familiar and manufactured. It was what appeared to be a very crunchy bit of iridescent cloth, the sort of starchy and shimmery outer layer of nylon and polyester that cover children’s princess costumes.

Even knowing in advance that confusion was the museum’s raison d'être, I began to feel uneasy.

Most of the exhibits feature extensive wall text, largely biographical breakdowns of the lives of long-lost “geniuses.” This section’s writing contained clippings from admirers of the mosaics, remarks that, while some had the skill to see what was in these pictures (which, for the record, were clearly visible under a microscope), others simply couldn’t interpret them. In a way it was a comment on those around me: I was aware of the museum’s intended weirdness, but I wasn’t really sure that anyone else was.

“Look,” said a Russian mother who’d entered the exhibit to her two very bored children, “they’re made from butterfly wings!”

The pre-schooler didn’t seem interested. “I’m done, I’m done! I’m done!”

The museum itself is hardly sympathetic to its visitors, demanding constant concentration. The amount of information in the museum made me feel like Alice falling down a Wikipedia hole. I tried to focus on the timeline on the wall, a history of microscopes. There was the invention of the microscope, there was Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, and there was the limit of my awareness of microscopy. I just didn’t have the specialized knowledge to tell if anything I was being told was true or if there was some sort of joke being pulled here. Was the microscope invented that early? Was that really the year that Van Leeuwenhoek had done his work? Things were starting to seem off, but without access to the confirmation of the internet, I had no way of knowing what exactly was giving me that feeling.

I moved on to a small display containing the head of a Grey Fox. I put my spectacled eyes up to the viewfinder and looked the fox square in the face as its supposed sound howled and barked in the background. “This,” I thought to myself, “this is a joke. Ridiculous.” Because foxes don’t make noise, right? Do foxes make noise? I’d only ever seen a live one once in a forest. I was suddenly unsure of what I knew about anything. I pictured the fox gnashing its teeth at me with a hideous snarl and pulled my eyes from the box.

At this point I couldn’t tell what was false and what wasn’t because, while some things like fox facts ostensibly had an ultimate truth, other things were purportedly someone’s idea or opinion, a more abstract presentation of information than the straight-on display of an animal and its supposed call. 

On display too was a small plaster model of Noah’s Ark in the shape of a coffin that seemed excessively on-the-nose for me as a joke, but then I considered that, if folks have been going around building “bible museums,” what is so unlikely about the possibility of this having been someone’s serious thought, too? It’s completely reasonable to think—especially in the context of a museum—that such things might have been actual personal endeavors of long-unappreciated eccentrics. (Though by nature of having at some point been created—by a “genius” as claimed or otherwise by an anonymous artist—these works truly had to have been someone’s idea, even if they’re not attributed to the right people or circumstances, and in that sense the conceit rings true no matter what.)

Like a museum about the bible, there is simply a blanket demand of the MJT viewer to accept the veracity of what’s said by virtue of the authority of the institution. Art historians like to point out that artistic narratives are always written retroactively by museums, and in a way the MJT took the initiative to exhaustively cover itself in its wall text and on its website as though to get ahead of those looking for the real truth. The tradeoff for them having done that “work” of providing backstory is that the viewer needs to break down what is and isn’t false. It’s an exhaustive look at a subject, and an exhausting one.

The dry wall text reads like that of nature centers full of taxidermied bobcats and squirrels, not that of art museums. The MJT’s writing style is an engagement with a complex post-modernism that had a resurgence in 1990s fiction like Roberto Bolaño’s and David Foster Wallace’s, which depend upon immersing the reader through inundation with “facts” and names and biographical minutia. It is meant to create an entrenchment of the viewer into the artist’s vision and state of mind so that they cannot feel distinct from it. It asks a lot from the viewer, and the work has to be structured so as to interest a person enough to motivate them to slog through details to get to the end (for the record, no one in the world has ever finished “Infinite Jest,” I don’t care what anyone says).

I was hard pressed not to eventually let my eyes glaze over, especially because I was in no uncertain terms too high to read much of anything. 

I tried to watch a 3D video exhibit on multidisciplinary scientist and theologian Athanasius Kircher, a History Channel-style clip that droned on about his greatness and dedication to magnetism, or something. I’ll admit that at this point I had little patience for the video—which seemed almost designed to deter viewership with its Tim and Eric-style halted dubbing from German to English—and also, maybe especially, because there was some sort of clanging going on down the hall.

Not only does the museum overload your visual sense and your sense of cognition, it also bombards your eardrums with two different sets of sounds at once, more if a video exhibit or two are also playing. Even if you give full concentration, your best shot—something that really is impossible to maintain for too long here even if you’re sober, I imagine—there is the ever-present itch to be pulled away, to think about something else, to listen to a different sound. But eventually you simply become used to being overwhelmed and, like a Stravinsky song, you can split out the cacophonous racket into discernible pieces of music, telling apart narratives playing over loudspeakers from the clang of tens of miniature steel bells tethered to a spinning wooden wheel hanging from the ceiling.

Elsewhere in the museum is yet another 3D video playing in a theater with around 20 seats. I came in towards the end of one of Rembrandt’s earlier, floppy hatted self-portraits being rained on. Water streaked down its oiled front for a brief minute and then the screen cut to three art handlers padding a framed version of the painting, carefully wrapping it with silk ribbon before sending it on its way on a dolly down some marbled courtyard porticos. Even though common sense assures that the painting getting rained on wasn’t the original, there’s something about the video of the people handling the painting that made me doubt its veracity, too. It had the high production value of an informational video on art museums, but there was something about the look of one of the handlers that felt familiar in an uncanny way, like he was some character actor I’d forgotten I’d known about. At this point I’d been deluged with so much information and so many half-familiar names and facts that I felt like I’d gotten whiplash. My ears pounded a bit. Having walked in confidently thinking that most of the museum would be a joke, I was now worn out to the point of not being able to tell truth apart from fiction despite months of similarly confusing pressures in the non-museum space—and I was still only on the first floor.

The MJT is a marathon, an exercise in long-range cognition, a skills test. People around me were confused and frustrated. Up the stairs (on which, naturally, there is an exhibit about stairs) is a showcase of cat’s cradles, complete with videos of impossible and inscrutable knot arrangements as well as strings to try out being frustrated with. I pulled a loop from its peg and tried to make a simple sling but could only remember one step. A 20-something with long blonde hair stomped out of the room trailed by her boyfriend, exclaiming to no one in particular that the exhibit was “just pieces of STRING!” Part of what I loved about the museum was seeing people around me confused and upset; it was comforting, honestly, to know at this overwhelmed point that at least there was someone out there who was more befuddled than I was. Camaraderie, or maybe just schadenfreude. 

The deeper I got into the exhibits, the more my brain just wanted to relax. In no mood for more reading, I came across a video that told me about a model of memory called the “Cone of Obliscence.” It’s a long theory that suggests memories are just our minds inefficiently re-working past events based around our perceptions. Or, as the voiceover put it: “[Memories are] artificial constructions of our own design built around sterile particles of retained experience which we attempt to make live again by infusions of imagination.”

We live in a moment where this weird idea rings true. We are in a state of being overwhelmed by a constant influx of new information (about the world, ourselves, others), the way I was at the museum, while also being given the opportunity to forgo memory by using technology as an indexical record. If you’ve forgotten a fact or a circumstance or a thought you had, you can look it up. The immediacy with which we take photographs and record videos suggests that the theory might have been prophecy, since now as soon as something has escaped our immediate experience we only have a fleeting understanding and recollection of what it was and how it went—all framed around “sterile particles” like recorded images. We become susceptible to transforming our own experiences and those of others so that they support our already deeply held beliefs, and much in the way that witness testimonials expose the “fallibility of memory” so too does our daily engagement with memory recall.

The larger machine of information around us and those who speak under “authority” have little ready verifiability anymore, offering content and statistics that we must constantly question. Even news sources have become suspect, and our ability to stop at red flags dulled by the endless bombardment of our consciousnesses with nonsense or scandal. 

I stepped out into the overcast Culver City sun and called a Lyft. On the ride home I doubted my own eyes: Was that really a veterinary group back there? Those sun-faded paper flower cutouts pinned to the inside of that maybe-school’s window, did kids really make those? I could no longer rely on my assumptions. I questioned my intuition.

The day after my visit I tried to do some research (I’d fallen straight asleep on the day of once I got back to the East Side; that edible knocked me out). I landed on a Wikipedia page for the actual (albeit niche) school of micromosaics that mentioned “well-known practitioner” Henry Dalton’s butterfly pieces, but it turned out that the only source of information on Dalton’s name or existence was the MJT and its website. 

It’s an added feature of the museum, the one truly lingering exhibit: By nature of having had a website since the near-beginning of mass internet use, the museum has become a cited expert on things that it may or may not have itself concocted. As a physical institution, it has clout in matters that it may be twisting or making fun of. The museum stretches its tendrils of ambiguity into our “real” space, the non-institutional area, in the way that only the best art can do. The MJT wrote its own truth and in turn, made ours a more questionable space to live in. But maybe, and especially these days, an afternoon spent being trained to recognize that is for the best. 

Credit: Flickr.

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