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An Afternoon in The Museum of Jurassic Technology: The ‘Strangest Museum in America’
Even Wikipedia can’t explain away the strange, fascinating, and bewildering collection of artifacts on display in this mind-bending Culver City menagerie.
Within your own backyard lies adventure that will transport you to a place that feels miles from home. So leave your passport behind and start exploring The Nearest Faraway Place.
Can you tell us anything about the odd history of Los Angeles mobile home disasters? What about the role ant eggs play in curing "love”? Or the work of 17th century Jesuit scholar Athanasius Kircher on the relationship between magnetism and vegetation?
Somewhere between downtown L.A. and the ocean, between art and science, between a waking and dream state, the Museum of Jurassic Technology attempts to answer all or none of these questions.
A place that has uneasily carried the sobriquet “Strangest Museum in America” since it was founded in the late ’80s, the Museum of Jurassic Technology is a living love letter to the concept of what museums were and what they still can be. A nondescript building tucked between an auto shop and an In-N-Out Burger on Venice Blvd., the place is at once a throwback, transporting you to a time when museums were places of dark wonder that more closely resembled curiosity cabinets, and something that feels so completely new. The words don’t exist yet to describe what exactly it is.
“People enjoy it for its funkiness and because it is weird and quirky and leave it at that,” explains Susan Crane, University or Arizona associate professor of modern European history and the editor of Museums and Memory. “Others go in and see how serious it is about museums and what a lovely riff it is on the idea of museums. But when I process this place, I tend to think of it as performance art, one that includes you and your response to it as part of the performance. It is a constantly-in-process work of art.”
In fact, your part in the museum’s performance may be just figuring out what the heck it is. What does the name Jurassic Technology even mean, and what connection does it have to the strange and somewhat disconnected exhibits of folk cures, forgotten scientists, and strange art it houses?
According to the authoritative voice in a film that loops near the entrance, the museum is part of a scientific tradition that dates back to Noah’s Ark, and is dedicated to “the advancement of knowledge and the public appreciation of the Lower Jurassic.” That said, don’t expect to recognize anything from the latest Spielberg-produced blockbuster—not that there’s much evidence that Brachiosaurus and its brethren used wrenches or any other technology.
No, the museum’s name is not so literal; it’s meant to evoke the space it hopes to chart between science, the historical record, art, and conjecture—a dark realm where the imagination can have free reign. Or at least that is what you can tell yourself when you find yourself in a dark room staring through a microscope at a sculpture of Goofy on the eye of a needle, or looking at a pair of stuffed white mice on a piece of toast and discovering it was once considered a cure for bedwetting.
“Historically, museums were places where you went to learn things, places of enlightened amusement,” the museum’s founder David Wilson tells The Daily Beast. “These days people carry more knowledge then they will ever need in their pocket. So then what are museums for? To me they are still about what they were about when I was a kid: a sense of place and the experience that can be had in that place.”
While not a large place, the Museum of Jurassic Technology is a dark labyrinth, which is part of the point. Wilson’s most joyous childhood memory was as a five-year-old getting hopelessly lost inside London’s Natural History Museum, an experience that probably would have traumatized most other children.
Indeed, with its dark corners and mysterious chimes, this is perhaps not a museum for all children—a lot of “Whys” may have to go unexplained—but it is the perfect one for the right child. The 10-year-old we brought called the place “discombobulating reality,” which we’re pretty sure was a compliment, while the Harry Potter obsessed eight-year-old felt right at home.
The second floor of the museum boasts the perfect palette cleanser when things get a bit odd or intense. Opened almost three years ago, the upstairs features a Moroccan-style rooftop courtyard filled with cooing doves as well as a sunlight filled tearoom serving free tea and cookies. You’ll also find portraits of Belka, Strelka, Laika, and the other dogs of the Soviet Space programs as well as an exhibit on cats cradles that invites you to invent your own.
On most afternoons, you will find Wilson in the courtyard playing music on a bandoneon or a nyckelharpa. “I think it adds to the ambiance to have live music,” he says.
The museum is open Thursday from 2pm to 8pm, and Friday through Sunday from noon to 6pm. They ask for an $8 donation—$5 for students and teachers—while children under 12 are free. Parking can be found on the street or in the parking structure above the Trader Joe’s; better yet, the museum is a short walk from the Culver City stop on Metro’s Expo Line.
Plan on catching dinner afterwards at one of the countless new restaurants that are constantly popping up across Venice in downtown Culver City. Because the museum doesn’t allow pictures—please leave your selfie sticks at home—you’ll have plenty to talk about over dinner trying to get a handle on what it was you just experienced.
“We don’t want people to leave here with anything in particular because we think of ourselves as just presenting things,” says Wilson. “We are half of the equation, at best. People’s minds are the other half. What they do with it is forever surprising and amazing, which is how it should be.”