Don’t read this post. Here, I’ll tell you what it’s about so you don’t have to go any further: a West African stink ant, bottle of urine, human horn, dogs in space, elaborate carvings on fruit pits, fleas playing soccer, relics, curiosities, specimens, stuff of dreams, stuff of nightmares, stuff of wonder. Seriously, look away.
You’re in the dark now. The large unmarked door closes behind you, shutting out the bright sunlight and the three people waiting at a bus stop on an unremarkable boulevard. Your cell phone stops working. You feel as if you’ve entered a hushed funeral home with its faint smell of lilies and muted sounds of … is that a wolf’s howl? A clap of thunder? A freaky meek girl with a high-pitched voice sells you a five-dollar ticket and tells you there are no photographs allowed. This is helpful to know in case, for example, you suddenly see the hand from the Addams Family scurry across the desk and want to capture the moment.
A low-tech, introductory video tells you you’re in a museum harkening back to the 16th and 17th centuries. The standard documentary male voice-over provides a florid, 10-minute history of public collections of rarities and curios through the ages and explains that the place you’re in preserves the flavor of natural history museums with an “incongruity born of the overzealous spirit in the face of unfathomable phenomena.” When it concludes, your indisputably learned friend will ask, “So, um … what is this place?”
The first floor winds around black curtains and glass cases of puzzling displays. There is an elaborate description on the wall of an exhibit that we can’t locate. Another exhibit says “out of order,” but we’re not convinced it would be any more enlightening if it were in order. There is what claims to be the real horn from the back of a woman’s head; a fruit pit the length of a thumbnail with the carvings of the Flemish countryside, a bearded man, 15 different species of animals and a soldier on horseback, but no magnifying glass to verify any of that; and unremarkable items found at, or collected by inhabitants of, American trailer parks displayed in cases that resemble coffins. The cabinet with the beetle or stink ant or bottle of urine have “listening stations” nearby, with phones you can pick up presumably for more info, but no sound comes from the other end, or can you hear breathing? You wonder whether there’s someone there, listening, waiting for you to talk. There are a few other visitors walking about, but they are so quiet that you question whether they are being paid to play the part of “awed museum visitor.”
At least twice on the second floor there is a sign that warns you to watch your step, but there is no clear cause for a misstep. When you do trip up the step to a strange, tiny theater there is no warning. After you pass the exhibit on dogs in space, you come to a serene white room where the girl who sold you your ticket is sitting quietly in the corner. “Hello,” she says into the quiet, after you’ve been trying not to look at her. You nod. She pauses, then says, “Would you like some tea?” You decline because the word “poison” immediately comes to mind from a deep, well-honed gothic imagination. You leave her to step onto a covered roof deck where there are doves, a lot of them, and a musician playing an ancient Persian string instrument. You ask him a question between pieces because the music is hauntingly beautiful, but more because you want to see if he’s a regular guy. You’re craving an encounter with a regular guy because your gothic imagination just freaked you out again with the idea that an escape from this place could possibly be futile.
When you do get out and discuss your experience with your friends over dinner, you realize you’re glad you didn’t know much about the museum beforehand. (I warned you not to read this, didn’t I?) All you knew is that it’s called the Museum of Jurassic Technology, it’s in Los Angeles, and your cool friends told you to go. There’s also a fascinating book about it that was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize called Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder by Lawrence Weschler, which you rushed to read when you got home. Weschler, it turns out, was inspired to walk his readers through the experience in second person, too, and even asked the very same question we (you) did: “What is this place?” The answers he got after years of research are real and unreal, vague and specific, mysterious and, at times – unbelievably – rooted in fact. (The intricate carvings on small pits? It was apparently a thing. See page 97.)
“There’s this fine line … between knowing you’re experiencing something and sensing that something is wrong,” Marcia Tucker, founding director of New York’s New Museum told Weschler. It’s “the very essence of the place.” Weschler describes it as “a museum, a critique of museums, and a celebration of museums – all rolled into one.” And about David Wilson, the founder/curator/wizard behind the curtain? He’s a recipient of a MacArthur Genius Award and counts among his fans curators of some of the top museums around the world. But no, it seems he won’t give you a straight answer and nope, he won’t admit to any shenanigans.
The day after I visited the museum (back to first person; stay with me here), I had the pleasure of meeting Ken Brecher, current president of the Los Angeles Public Library Foundation, former head of the Sundance Institute and the Boston Children’s Museum. Someone had told me he had ties to Amazon, which put me in a certain frame of mind until he showed me the hammock he had slept in for two years in the Amazon rainforest, one of the many keepsakes he has displayed in his deliciously cluttered and fascinating office. Everywhere an oddity, every oddity had a story. Ken is an anthropologist, a collector, a raconteur, a comedian, a master seeker and maker of cabinets of wonder. He has – and I’m not making this up – 550 bottles of water taken or given to him (the water, not the bottles) from places around the globe, including the top of Mount Everest, the room where Trotsky was murdered, and the Pope’s bathtub. I wanted to camp out in his office for a week, looking at his keepsakes, listening to his stories.
To get startled by something mysterious, odd, incomprehensible, or unfathomable, is, as Albert Einstein said in 1931, “the most beautiful experience we can have.” But we live in a world now that threatens that experience, as wondering is so easily and quickly followed by knowing. (“Siri: what’s a buzzkill?”) Before we even crack open a book or go see a movie, many of us seek out (or are force-fed) summary info and reviews and photos and trailers that by the time we dive in, the wow factor is significantly diminished. Rather than linger in moments of wonder and mull them over and discuss them with others, we try to capture them on our iPhones and post them on social media.
Do we even have a word anymore that can describe a true wonder experience? We’ve pretty much removed the “awe” from “awesome,” the “wonder” from “wonderful,” the “marvel” from “mahvelous, darling.” (This reminds me of a British friend the first time she told me I was brilliant. I was beaming until I heard her use the same word to describe a border collie that could wiggle its butt on command.) I’m reading Neal Thompson’s terrifically well-written biography A Curious Man about Robert Ripley (of Ripley’s Believe It or Not!). I find Ripley unpalatable, but I do love his fondness for the bizarre and his desire to go places that most travelers avoided at a time (early 20th century) when there was still much to discover.
Not too long ago, I was at a brunch in Boston and was lucky enough to sit next to the charming and brilliant (trust me, I’m an American) award-winning Irish writer Colum McCann. He had given a keynote address to about 800 emerging writers the day before. The main piece of advice he offered was “don’t be a dick,” but another one was: “have wonder.” In other words, pay attention, be curious, stay present, open your senses, notice the unfamiliar amidst the familiar, experience art (get a tip from a friend to read or see or listen to something, but leave it at that), and remember what it’s like to be a kid.
“One only need spend a few moments in the company of a toddler to rediscover what geographer Yi-Fu Tuan has labeled an ‘intense openness to the world’,” writes Nicholas Bell, curator of the Renwick Gallery in Washington, DC, and author of Wonder, a beautiful book based on the aptly named exhibit there. “Somewhere along the road from the time we first pick up a stone to the moment we arrive at our first day of gainful employment, each of us passes through a bottleneck that seizes up wonder, transforms most of the objects around us into the everyday, and colors our experience of the world a little drab.”
I recently went back to the Renwick’s Wonder exhibit with my seven-year-old son and mother-in-law to see pieces like Tara Donovan’s 10-foot-tall towers of index cards, Maya Lin’s map of the Chesapeake Bay in glass marbles that spread across the floor and up the walls, and – one of my favorites – a pink, Victorian-looking room by Jennifer Angus with walls covered in intricate designs made out of real (but thankfully dead) colorful, sort of creepy jungle insects, some of them 10 inches in length. The first time I went, I moved slowly and steadily throughout the museum with my husband, the two of us conversing about what we were seeing. I was awed by the art. The second time, I experienced wonder more from watching my companions. My son did things I didn’t think to do – he knelt down, looked under, closed one eye, and rocked back and forth to see how that changed the lighting and created the illusion of movement. (And then he quickly got bored and asked to go get pizza. Wonder: 1; attention span: 0.) My mother-in-law was even more fun to watch when the video played of how the artists created their art. Such joy in her face. (I’ve always loved how excited she gets in museums. I totally lucked out in the MIL department.)
Once I finish reading everything Ricky Jay has ever written and go see Mmuseumm in Manhattan, I’ll probably get off my wonder kick and stop wondering so much about wondering. But while I’m in it, I should say I feel more present, more awed by things. It’s a great state to be in.
Way up at the beginning of this long blog post I said I’d be writing about a bunch of things, all of which I mentioned except for the fleas playing soccer. Did you notice that? No? Take a look. I’ll wait.
Fleas playing soccer. Can you imagine? Flea circuses were popular back in the day, sure, but they weren’t real, were they? How did they get the fleas to do tricks, you might wonder. And who are “they”? If you’re at all curious (and I can understand why you wouldn’t be), you’ll probably look it up. But I hope you don’t. I hope you turn to the person next to you and wonder about it together. If all of us could put aside our chores and the modern world and the knowing every once in a while and stay in the dark a little longer, imagine what we might find there.