Lawrence Weschler makes a convincing case that anyone who believes that truth is stranger than fiction has probably never been to the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Culver City, California.
Weschler is the author of Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Wonder, a story first published in Harper's magazine then expanded into a book that became a finalist in the nonfiction category for both the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize.
The oddly named Museum of Jurassic Technology, which sits among retail storefronts off Venice Boulevard in a Los Angeles neighborhood, and its curiously passionate curator, David Wilson, are the subjects of the book. Weschler uses the subjects to explore the tradition in western civilization from which the Museum of Jurassic Technology draws its lineage, museums with curiosities, bona fide or not.
In the case of Wilson's museum, visitors who wander in off the street, like Weschler, view meticulous exhibits that offer, at first glance, lesser-known mysteries of the natural world like a South American bat emitting a pulse that can penetrate lead and a detailed and romantic history of the expedition during which the bat was discovered.
While the viewer is still wondering why they've never once heard of x-ray-emitting bats, they might pass by other rarities, like a fruit pit that is carved with a detailed scene including a Flemish noble and the crucifixion in the background, or dishes full of powder with no other description save the labeling "possession," "delusion," "paranoia," "schizophrenia," and "reason."
While artful enough in their weirdness, the exhibits are treated with something that borders on genuine affection by Weschler, who connects Wilson's unusual mission in life with the tradition of "cabinets of wonder," sixteenth- and seventeenth-century museums belonging to some of Europe's educated nobility. The wonder cabinets had flora and fauna from the New World alongside grotesque displays like a preserved skeleton of an infant playing violin with a dried arterial vein. In America, painter Charles Willson Peale's museum in Philadelphia is a prominent example of that type of museum, a mixture of fascination and hoax.
The book's greatest achievement is that Weschler avoids the merely ironic. He moves the discussion beyond the restrictive truths of science and celebrates the tradition of wonder in our cultural experience and the worth of things that ought to be.
Reviewed by John Lavey.