Book Reviews / Comptes rendus de livres - Lawrence Weschler, Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Curiosities

Book Reviews / Comptes rendus de livres

Lawrence Weschler, Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Curiosities

Robin Inglis
North Vancouver Museum and Archives
Weschler, Lawrence. Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Curiosities. New York: Pantheon Books, 1995. of 165 pp., 43 illus., cloth, $28.95, ISBN 0-679-43998-6.

1 This delightful little book describes American journalist Lawrence Weschler's discovery a nondescript, 1500-square-foot, storefront operation in Los Angeles — the Museum of Jurassic Technology. Through this discovery he uncovers the beginnings of the modern museum in the eclectic, confused and confusing cabinets of curiosities of post-Renaissance Europe, before the Age of Reason introduced us to the 'modern' systematic documentation of knowledge.

2 The Museum of Jurassic Technology grew out of the prodigious and unusual imagination of David Wilson, former avant-garde filmmaker and student of urban entomology, possessed of a real skill in the creation and building of off-beat exhibits. "Jurassic Technology"? What on earth does that mean? The "General Statement" of the museum is perhaps less than helpful, describing the MJT as:

an educational institution dedicated to the advancement of knowledge and the public appreciation of the Lower Jurassic. Like a coat of two colors, the Museum serves dual functions. On the one hand the Museum provides the academic community with a specialized repository of relics and artifacts from the Lower Jurassic, with an emphasis on those that demonstrate unusual or curious technological qualities. On the other hand the Museum serves the general public by providing the visitor a hands-on experience of "life in the Jurassic."

It continues:

although the path has not always been smooth, over the years the Museum of Jurassic Technology has adapted and evolved until today it stands in a unique position among the major institutions of the country. Still, even today, the Museum preserves something of the flavor of its roots in the early days of the natural history museuma flavor which has been described as "incongruity born of the overzealous spirit in the face of unfathomable phenomena."

What? Still confusing!

3 In the first part of the book Weschler leads us into the museum and into the imagination of David Wilson. It is an adventure. In the words of the critic Ralph Rugoff, "it is dark and claustrophobic enough to evoke the kinship between museum and mausoleum. The MJT is a curiosity collection-cum-natural history museum, where science and art, as well as history and fiction, are so fluidly conflated that all distinctions seem suspect." The author describes exhibitions on the Cameroon stink ant; a dramatic intersection of the lives of an opera star and a neurophysicist and memory researcher; bat research in South America; and "Letters to the Mount Wilson Observatory" in Pasadena, California. In what poses as a Gift Shop he finds a series of booklets published in the United States by "the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Information ... in co-operation with the Visitors to the Museum by the Delegates of the Press." This Press has offices in locations as diverse as Billings, Bogota, Bhopal, Dusseldorf, Pretoria and Teheran.

4 "Excuse me," he ends up asking Wilson, "Urn, what kind of place is this?" A precise answer is never forthcoming and later, when he follows up some of the stories presented with his own investigations, he discovers a curious mix of truth and fiction, imagination and fantasy. It turns out that Mr. Wilson's Cabinet, with interests that encompass all of time and space — ancient (Jurassic) and modern (technology) — is a hall of mirrors. The Museum presents all the familiar museological conventions and techniques, and the exhibits seem to have all the authority we have come to take for granted. Beneath the surface, however, lies a complex play on that dynamic between the mystery and anarchy of individual inspiration, and the certainty and order of collective scholarship — contradictory forces that lie at the heart of the human condition. What Wilson has done is blur the now rigid line between truth and fiction. As any good novelist will tell you, fiction is not a lie; it is merely an approach to truth that can only be reached obliquely. And we only have to think about what today we know about memory to understand that no two people remember any event exactly the same way; memory is in fact an interlocking of precise recall and embellishment.

5 So what does this mean to museums today? Surely we wouldn't want to halt our upward march in the search for knowledge and the dissemination of "truth"? The answer, Weschler thinks, perhaps lies in the experience of "wonder." In his title the author uses this word and in the second half of the book he entertainingly recounts the stories of some of the more famous "catholic and deliriously heterodox" collections that sprouted up all over Europe following the two great waves of European discovery of the world in the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries. What these collections did, of course, was to transport their viewers through a state of curiosity into a state of wonder, even disbelief. Weschler quotes Bernai Diaz's account of the Spaniard's first spellbound vision of the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan — "Gazing on such a wonderful sight, we did not know what to say or whether what appeared before us was real"; also the Italian art historian Adalgisa Lugli, who has written that, until the end of the eighteenth century, wonder was "a form of learning — an intermediate, highly particular state akin to a sort of suspension of the mind between ignorance and enlightenment that marks the end of unknowing and the beginning of knowing;" and the American writer, Stephen Greenblatt, "the expression of wonder stands for all that cannot be understood, that can scarcely be believed. It calls attention to the problem of credibility and at the same time insists upon the undeniability, the exigency of experience."

6 We can be justly proud today of the way in which we have developed and conserved our museum collections, and of our organization of knowledge into highly useful and worthwhile exhibits that use those objects of material culture and the natural world that make up what we appreciate today as art, history and science. What David Wilson's particular museum provides us, however, is the chance, in his own words, "to reintegrate people to wonder." Through remarkable displays on horned humans; the curative powers of urine, duck's breath and mice on toast, fur and all; fruitstone carving; bees who are understood "to be quiet and sober beings that disapprove of lying and cheating ... dislike bad language and should never be bought and sold;" and the Thums, father and son, whose collections form the basis of the MJT and whose story bears a bizarre similarity to that of the Tradescants, Wilson's creation reminds us of that marvellous human capacity for astonishment and absorption out of which all true creativity arises.

7 Today's museums are part of a world buried in knowledge. As the critic Reid Sherline has put it in his review of the MJT on the World Wide Web (http:www.voyagerco.com/links/archive/links960318.html; see also www.mjt.org): "Mystery under our care has atrophied, has grown delicate and consumptive. Wilson, in his small way, offers an antidote; with him we take our first, tentative steps back from knowing to unknowing." Lawrence Weschler, in this gem of a book — an easy and stimulating evening read — suggests that, in all our certainty and authority, we not forget our roots in the wunderkammem — the "wonder cabinets" of a couple or more centuries ago.