Monday, March 21, 2011

Bemusement Park

This Saturday, I went somewhere that should not exist. Or if it did exist, it should have stopped existing, because everything about it makes me think that the world would reject it. However, it endures, against all logic, and you too can maybe one day visit and appreciate it in all its head-scratching glory. This thing is the Museum of Jurassic Technology. It’s a joke. Kind of. It’s also performance art. It’s also a legitimate tourist attraction. It’s also in Culver City, of all places. And I can describe it as a mock museum, I guess, but that doesn’t convey much about the experience of going there. And it’s an art installation, but on a much larger scale than you’ve probably seen before.

I can compare the Museum of Jurassic Technology to a David Lynch film. In experiencing either, there’s an uneasy humor that forces you to be okay with feeling uncomfortable. Also, both create that awkwardness by twisting a familiar setting. WIth Lynch, it’s the intersection of Americana and the surreal. With the Museum of Jurassic Technology, there’s that same meeting of down home hokey and otherworldly, but the uneasiness is mainly generated by the contrast between everything you have come to expect from a museum and what you’re seeing: obviously false things, possibly false things, truthful things tweaked to be somewhat false and things that are just baffling. Some exhibits make you laugh. Others don’t have an obvious joke, and you’re left with a brain full of this: “Am I missing the joke? …Or is the lack of a joke the joke? …Or is the joke that I’m here? …Or is the joke on the visitors who don’t get the overall joke?” Have you ever read the Eggers brothers’ Doris Haggis-on-Whey books? They purport to be educational but they teach false information, such as that giraffes control what we see in mirrors and that snot comes from Detroit. The Museum of Jurassic Technology works similarly but less gleefully. The place is literally dark, to the point that some plaques are hard to read. Intentional? Also, some of the exhibits don’t seem to work properly. You press a button and nothing happens. You pick up a phone expecting to hear an audio track explaining an exhibit, but you only hear electronic beeping. Again: Is it intentional? Even if it isn’t, the museum gets away with it. The place so confounded me that when I finally found the bathroom, I was afraid to use it because I couldn’t be sure that it wasn’t actually an exhibit and that my peeing wouldn’t end up being broadcast on a screen in another part of the museum.

You may have noticed that I haven’t described the exhibits. I feel like I shouldn’t, just because anyone wanting to go should experience it without much of a preconceived idea of what they will see. I went in only vaguely understanding what the place has to offer, and I think I enjoyed it more as a result. Indeed, the museum seems keen on preserving the aura of mystery. For example, if you do what I did and follow up your visit to the museum with a trip to its Wikipedia page, you’ll find a straightforward write-up. First sentence: “The Museum of Jurassic Technology is an educational institution dedicated to the advancement of knowledge and the public appreciation of the lower jurassic.” No hint of the museum’s true nature — that is, the joke. It’s as if the museum’s creator and curator wrote the article himself and Wikipedia editors tacitly agreed not to out the place. That’s not to say that the article is misleading; it’s just cleverly withholding the whole truth.

In the end, I can only offer these two bits: Go, if you’re in the Los Angeles area and feeling like you’re needing stimulation. My trip to the Museum of Jurassic Technology was easily the most intellectual thing I’ve done in the six months since I moved here. However, the second bit of advice I can give you is this disclaimer: It may well be that I completely missed the point of this museum and my comments are therefore not to be considered in decided whether to visit the museum and what to make of it once you’ve left.

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