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Revisiting the Museum of Jurassic Technology

David Wilson, in his trailer, Museum of Jurassic Technology

What can one say that’s new or more than of passing interest about a place like the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Culver City, California? Once one is in on the joke, you might ask, what more can one add?

According to Irit Rogoff, “The history of modernism is … inscribed with collaboration and collectivity, [with] avant-garde movements … founded in a perception of artists coming together with a mutual and coherent project in mind. … But no sooner are such supposedly collective entities established by historians than the process of privileging a dominant talent, an artistic leader … begins in earnest.” If collaborative work is represented by “a critical interrogation of the processes of production through artistic practice,” critical mediation acts as a filter or schema limiting the way the production is viewed.

What follows is an abbreviated version of a story we presented at the recent Modernist Studies Association Conference in Victoria, B.C.—a story of two interviews, two artist statements, one conducted with David Wilson, Director of the MJT, in 2006; and the second conducted last month with Wilson and his staff. Our first interview (“our” because I’ve been working with artist-researcher Donald Lawrence and, more recently, our student research assistant Emily Hope), like all those conducted before us, focused exclusively on Wilson—we sought to test out the view of the museum as a performance art installation. The second interview modified that view and revealed an extraordinary behind-the-scenes look at the collaborative efforts that sustain the museum as a site of collective and thoughtful inquiry.

Museum of Jurassic Technology, Street View

The Museum is typically described as “Part installation art-performance, part curiosity cabinet, part testimony to the fact that truth is stranger than fiction, and purely David Wilson’s creation” Experiencing the museum through the modernist lens of Lawrence Weschler’s Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder, a Pulitzer Prize nominated work, critics and commentators consistently insist on the museum’s self-consciousness, its ironic inflection, its focus on the individual, its presumption of authorial intention, and the authenticity of its objects—and on David Wilson’s role as a kind of performance artist. Over and over, the Museum is discussed in terms of “Wilson’s singular vision”—and perhaps most tellingly, the museum is represented by critics as a one-man show.

What these observations have in common is their conflation of the man and the museum. And it is easy upon first meeting David Wilson to become intoxicated by his sincerity, his seriousness of purpose, his sense of wonder, and his thoughtful curatorial presence-cum-performance.

During our first interview I was struck by how often he used the word “think” or “thought” as both a linking device (“we think”) and a generative metaphor (how visitors raise questions that “cause us to pool our thoughts”). When discussing the Garden of Eden on Wheels exhibit, for example, he said that “We actually went out of our way to choose collections that felt thoughtful and carefully put together but without being primarily quirky or strange.” And when the idea of exhibiting the possessions of ordinary people was first raised, he spoke of “ripples that came out of that thought that were really appealing to us.” At that time the interview answers seemed well rehearsed, and despite my appreciation for his responses, I couldn’t help feeling disappointed that he wasn’t more forthcoming about his artistic intent. Intent on confirming his role as the creative agency behind the project, like Weschler I interpreted Wilson’s references to the museum staff, his repeated use of “we,” as merely part of the performance.

In my Victoria presentation, which takes up insights drawn from our most recent visit, I wanted to take Wilson at his word and tease out the possibility that his use of the first person plural is more than a theatrical affectation. I wanted to reconsider David Wilson and The Museum of Jurassic Technology not in terms of the heroic artist, a postmodern gesture or unstable rhetorical trope or a fake modernist museum, but as a research and public art collective, a community at once informed by the tradition of artist house museums (for Wilson does indeed live in a 1951 Spartan Aircraft Trailer Coach parked on the museum property) and inflected by a commitment to research and artistic inquiry akin to that pioneered by new genre public art and now under intense reflection in the universities.

To the best of my knowledge, however, no one has considered in depth the equally extensive studio, workshop, office, research and archival space that scaffolds the public work of the museum—another several thousand square feet where staff busy themselves with the meticulous documentation of projects; the construction of new exhibits and the repair of others; the ongoing work of interns, visiting artists, and university researchers; the long-standing residency program with the University of Wisconsin. For the Museum is home (quite literally to Wilson) to seven staff members—all artists (a dancer, a ceramicist, a textile artist…) and all committed to the museum as a collective enterprise. A place where those who work speak of themselves as both “curatorial and janitorial”; where behind the scenes it is “part school, part zoo.” During the course of our interviews we heard how “everyone participates in the development of new exhibits, how “the best experience is when you cannot remember whose idea it was”; how the museum is “very much open to people’s participation [for] it’s so small here”; how Alexis and David “write together all the time”—and how they are consciously working “to defeat authorship.”

At present I’m busy working on the transcripts of interviews conducted during the second visit; but even at this point it’s obvious that there’s more to the Museum of Jurassic Technology than meets the eye.

Museum Workshop Space


  1. garrettpetts wrote:

    Here’s a Tasmanian variation on the MJT theme?

    Saturday, January 1, 2011 at 7:03 pm | Permalink
  2. garrettpetts wrote:

    Saturday, January 1, 2011 at 7:04 pm | Permalink

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