The Museum of Jurassic Technology

I recommend the Museum of Jurassic Technology to just about everyone I meet. As one of my most cherished places in the city, I insist on bringing any first-time visitors to Los Angeles there. But whenever anyone asks me what the museum actually is, I struggle to come up with a satisfactory answer. Sometimes I just describe some of the things you can see there, but I hesitate because I don’t want to give away too much, and the secrecy is part of the allure. When trying to summarize it, I often resort to something along the lines of, “It’s like if you took the stuff at Ripley’s Believe It or Not, something really esoteric, but then you gave it the seriousness and gravitas of an old-fashioned natural history museum.” Bleh. That sounds so kitschy, and even wrong. It doesn’t capture the brilliance of what has been accomplished here, the artistic genius of it all! Perhaps a more curatorial explanation is in order. “It’s a museum about museums,” I offer. “It’s an art project, a meta commentary on the nature of museums, presented in the form of a museum!” And while I think this is an accurate statement, if rather pretentious and a bit narrow-minded, it doesn’t really help explain why someone should actually go see it.

There’s really no way around this: the Museum of Jurassic Technology isn’t about anything except the Museum of Jurassic Technology. There isn’t really an overarching theme or focus, at least not one that is apparent from an outside observer. Moving from one gallery to the next, the visitor will experience a sudden and at times jarring transition between completely different subjects; one minute, you’re reading a treatise on the philosophical implications and garden-like qualities of the mobile home trailer park, and the next you’re staring at a model of a duck breathing into a child’s mouth.

But despite the disparate nature of the exhibits, everything in the museum successfully comes together to create something greater than the sum of its parts. You can’t easily summarize the Museum of Jurassic Technology because it isn’t just one thing. It is both museum and a parody of a museum; sincere in its sense of wonder and appreciation of the world, but knowingly turning the medium of the gallery and display case on its head. It is one man’s life’s work that has been embraced by the community, an artistic endeavor that pays homage to the cabinets of curiosities that are the precursors to the modern museum. It is an invitation to be confounded, bewildered, charmed, and dazzled.

Currently, the museum asks that you make a reservation on their website ahead of time, with open hours Thursdays through Sundays. The museum is located in a nondescript storefront on Venice Boulevard, about five blocks west from the Culver City Metro station on the E (Expo) Line. While you certainly can walk directly down Venice Blvd from the station, this stretch of Venice is dominated by strip malls, drive-thrus, and fast-moving traffic, which doesn’t make for a pleasant pedestrian experience, and some of the intersections are downright intimidating to cross. The better approach on foot is to take a slight diversion through Downtown Culver City, where you can enjoy some old architecture and cute storefronts on your way (also, Metro bus #33 runs along Venice Blvd and stops directly in front of the museum, so you can skip the walk entirely if you don’t mind a wait).

Map of Downtown Culver City, with recommended walking route marked by blue dotted line

From the station, walk to the intersection of Venice & Robertson and make a left onto Robertson. Walk a block to the next light and make a right onto Washington Blvd. Here, you’ll pass a car dealership on the righthand side and the Sony Animation studios on the left, housed in a set of classy Art Deco buildings. At the next light, where Washington curves to the right, cross the street and head straight through the pedestrian plaza directly ahead. On your left will be the Culver Studios, a historic film studio dating from 1918 that is most notable as the filming location of Gone with the Wind (today it’s the main home of Amazon Studios). Directly ahead, the six-story Culver Hotel is a lovely brick building that dates back to the 1920s and catered to the city’s film studios for many decades.

Make the first right and cross Culver Blvd onto Main Street, a one-block stretch of cute storefronts home to plenty of small cafes and shops. Continue up Main Street and when you reach Venice Blvd, the Museum of Jurassic Technology will be directly across the street on the righthand side.

From the outside, it’s hard to believe that you’re standing outside a museum. The front of the building is largely bare, save for an understated sign mounted above a small wall fountain. But once you pass through the heavy door, the glare and noise of Venice Boulevard are instantly replaced by the cool dimness within. The gift shop is the first room you enter, and gives a good preview of what’s to come: a cramped, dimly-lit space full of merchandise referencing objects in the museum that are pretty much incomprehensible at first glance. A shop attendant behind the desk greets you and checks you in before entering the museum proper, reminding you of the rules, including the most important one to maintaining the museum’s aura of secrecy: phones off, no photos. (Which is why instead of pictures we are using illustrations drawn from our memory of previous visits.)

The first gallery is a maze of tight corridors, narrow enough to make it difficult to pass someone going in the opposite direction. Several sounds define this entrance gallery: one is the constant trickle of water from an elaborate diorama of a waterfall, much like the sound of a bird bath running continuously inside a nursery. The distant howls of a wolf and the haunting melody of an opera singer emanate from galleries further back. And then there’s the narration of the introductory film, which plays in a corner near the entrance.

If you were hoping that the introductory film would help explain what you’re about to see, you’ll be disappointed. In fact, it pretty much does the exact opposite, adding an extra layer of bafflement to the experience. “The Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles, California,” the narration begins over an illustration of a tall pyramid towering over an ancient river plain, “is an educational institution dedicated to the advancement of knowledge and the public appreciation of the Lower Jurassic.” What is the Lower Jurassic? The film doesn’t elaborate any further. Just go with it.

What follows is a surprisingly accurate summary of the history of the modern museum, from the private libraries of the European elite to the “cabinets of curiosities” that the Museum of Jurassic Technology draws inspiration from. At one point, Charles Willson Peale—founder of the first public museum in the United States—is quoted, “the learner must be led always from familiar objects toward the unfamiliar – guided along, as it were, a chain of flowers into the mysteries of life.” Amusingly, this is pretty much the polar opposite of the Museum of Jurassic Technology’s approach, which hits you over the head with the unusual stuff right off the bat.

The walls of the entrance galleries are lined with displays and the occasional wall-mounted telephone that, upon picking up, will offer a narrative about the objects you are viewing… sometimes. Sometimes, the phones don’t do anything at all, and sometimes the recordings go on for so long you start to wonder if this is all an elaborate joke. Even one or two of the displays are empty, permanently in a state of “repair.” The content of the displays themselves varies between the completely fictitious to the sounds-fictitious-but-is-actually-true, but more commonly falls into a space of sounding plausible, if mundane.

This aspect of the museum, this blending of fact and fiction, is regularly commented on by travel guides and articles when describing the Museum of Jurassic Technology. It’s understandable, but in my opinion, this is one of the least interesting things about the museum. For one, it’s really only applicable to the entrance galleries, which are the oldest in the museum and the most disjointed in their theme. And secondly, concerning yourself about the factual nature of what you’re viewing just seems to run counter to the spirit of the place. This isn’t an exercise in fake news, it’s an opportunity to lose yourself in worlds heretofore unknown. The content of the museum here is not nearly as important as the presentation.

The initial entrance gallery is a collection of seemingly random objects and stories, but once you pass through to the galleries in the back, you’ll find each one follows a far more coherent theme. And this is where things get really fun. An array of wild settings await you. In one room hidden away to the side, there’s a collection of unhinged letters sent to Mount Wilson Observatory. After this, the elaborate tale of an engineer whose bridge collapses over a waterfall and an opera singer who suffered from memory loss, followed by an elaborate diorama demonstrating a theory of memory as cones passing through temporal planes. In the back, there’s a set of animated dioramas demonstrating historic stage set techniques. Through a door on the other side of the entrance gallery, you’ll find the museum’s most famous objects: a set of beautiful microscopic mosaics, assembled from miniscule colorful scales into depictions of butterflies, hummingbirds, and flowers, all presented under microscopes for your viewing pleasure.

The micromosaics gallery spills out into several other galleries on the ground floor. On one side, there’s a tiny library full of strange and esoteric titles followed by an exhibition on old folk medicinal cures. Through the other door, a exhibit on trailer houses, complete with dioramas of trailer homes in tranquil, sometimes eerie settings. Through here and to the right, yet another tiny room, this one of detailed microscopic sculptures that fit into the eye of a needle. To the left, a hallway adorned with dice in varying stages of decay, followed by a gallery of x-ray illustrations of flowers.

At this point, you might be thinking back to the quiet, nondescript storefront you saw facing Venice Boulevard and wondering how all of this could possibly fit in here. That feeling will magnify tenfold when you see the next room, the most awe-inspiring in the museum. Soaring two stories high and bathed in yellow light is the bestiary, a collection of exhibits about mythical and real creatures arranged in tight little corners around this church-like space. Navigating the room takes some care, given how narrow the passageways are, but the details are delightful, like the dragon heads carved into the stair railings. Each of the displays holds an animated projection of the animal, mythical or otherwise, shown through a small pane of glass.

You may have noticed these projections throughout the museum. On one side or corner of a display, a framed pane of glass will be held aloft by a thin frame, and looking through it at a particular angle will reveal a ghostly image, illuminated in an ethereal yellow light. These projections are allegedly the creation of the museum’s founder, a rather mysterious character who specialized in building such displays before establishing the museum. You may even run into him yourself, but we’ll return to that in due time.

The Bestiary exhibit holds a second floor, but it’s not attached to the true second floor of exhibits in the museum. To reach that, we must return to the entrance gallery, make our way to the very back, to the hallway of dioramas of theatrical stages, and head all the way back until you find the stairway tucked around the corner. Heading up the carpeted stairs will lead you past sketches and illustrations of staircases and other objects that hint at what lies at the top.

In contrast to the disparate nature of the exhibits downstairs, there is a common theme to the exhibits upstairs: almost all of them deal with a different facet of Russian culture. The first one displays the utopian visions of a Russian science fiction writer, who dreamed of cosmonauts living harmoniously in outer space. The next is a gallery about the cat’s cradle string game (granted, not something that’s exclusive to Russia), complete with folklore of cat’s cradle and even some sample strings for you to try your hands at. The central gallery on the second floor is a memorial hall to the Soviet space dogs, the first Earthlings in outer space, with lovingly painted portraits of each dog, including the famous Laika. And tucked in a corner of the space dog hall, a curtained door leads to a small 3D theater that plays a series of eerie and evocative art films that, judging from the scenery, seem to be set in Eastern Europe.

And then there’s the star attraction, not just of the second floor but of the whole museum; something so special, you have to save it for the very end. The last room on the second floor is a tea room, warmly decorated in Georgian style, where an attendant will offer you a cup of hot lemon tea and a cookie. You may enjoy it in the tea room, or take it out into the courtyard through the next door. Oh yes, there’s a courtyard. A tranquil, serene little courtyard that will make you feel like you’ve been transported to some quiet corner of Europe. That may sound cliché, but there is something truly otherworldly about this space. Venice Boulevard sits on the other side of one of these walls, yet all that ambient traffic noise is muffled within the courtyard, gently drowned out by the burble of a fountain, the cooing of doves, and the soothing melody of a musician who frequently plays an unusual stringed instrument or an accordion.

If you’re fortunate enough to be in the courtyard when the musician is here, know that you’ve been blessed by the presence of a genius. The silver-haired, bespectacled man who regularly plays music in the courtyard is none other than David Hildebrand Wilson, the founder of the Museum of Jurassic Technology. There’s a book about the museum, Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder (sold in the gift shop, incidentally), written early in the museum’s history by a chance visitor who became a close friend of Mr. Wilson. The book delves into the history and background of the museum and anything the author can find on its intriguing creator. In it, he describes Mr. Wilson as having a “simian” appearance, with strong Neanderthal features. When I read it, I thought this was a very strange and unflattering description, but when you see the man in person, it’s hard not to make the same observation. Even if you only catch him in passing, perhaps darting into a back door to fix something, perhaps playing his instrument, or perhaps watering the lush plants in the courtyard, there’s a twinkle in his eyes that’s hard to miss.

Find a seat in the courtyard and enjoy your time there, sipping your hot tea, listening to the music, and contemplating the wonders of the world. You will likely hear the cooing of the resident doves and look up to see a pair of beautiful white birds perched in a little alcove overhead, or strutting across the gravel of the courtyard.

While we’re visiting the Museum of Jurassic Technology, it’s worth it to check out another unique institution right next door. One door down (in an even more nondescript storefront that requires you to ring the doorbell) is the Center for Land Use Interpretation, a non-profit organization dedicated to the knowledge of how land is, well, used. The very official-sounding, boring name disguises a surprisingly engaging and enlightening perspective of something we usually take completely for granted.

The Center (which is only open Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays from noon to 5pm) holds a tiny gallery that hosts changing exhibits devoted to various topics of geography and land use (you can see what’s currently on view at this webpage). Topics range wildly and tend towards the hyper-specific, highlighting unusual land uses, specific locations of particular import, or uses so common you wouldn’t even think to notice them, all based on research projects conducted by the Center’s students. Past exhibits have dealt with underground business parks, sites associated with airships (blimp hangars, helium production sites, locations where zeppelins have crashed), and places associated with U.S. presidents, just to name a few. The website does a good job cataloging these exhibits, so you can look through the archives to explore some interesting topics.

An even more entertaining reason to visit the Center is to check out the books and postcards they have on sale. About half of the small gallery is taken up by this tiny gift store, where you can find texts related to the topics the Center has covered, or buy one of their humorous postcards. Perhaps an ominous road sign that just points to a distant “Point of Interest,” or another road sign that states “Absolutely Nothing” for the next 20 miles, or a scenic overlook with an utterly blank display. Besides being a fun conversation piece, they perfectly capture how the Center’s witty, critical perspective distorts the ordinary and reveals a hidden absurdity.

The Museum of Jurassic Technology and the Center for Land Use Interpretation take very different approaches to their subjects and cover very different topics. But I think they reflect two sides of the same coin. The Museum finds wonder in the fantastic, while the Center reveals it in the practical. Where the Museum looks to the heavens, the Center looks to the Earth. The Museum turns the extraordinary into the familiar, while the Center presents the ordinary as remarkable. Besides being entertaining, a visit to both will broaden your horizons in ways you may not expect. And repeat visits will always reveal something you overlooked before.

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