A Guest Blog by AAM Museum-Ed Tech Mobber Dave Schaller
I went to the Museum of Jurassic Technology on an AAM “On-Site Insight” field trip. I know that many, many words have been written about the museum. I must hav e read a few of them sometime ago, since I made a point of signing up for this outing, but I can’t recall what they said. And no one that I asked before my visit would tell me anything about the museum. “It’s better to go without knowing anything,” they said. So I went, and was confused, amused, amazed, curious, bored, and confused. And that was all in the first room.
If you haven’t been there…well, my friends were right: there’s really no way to summarize the museum in a few words. It’s full of carefully crafted exhibits, incredible art and artifacts, ingenious multimedia….and yet is nothing like any museum that I can recall. It vaguely made me think of the movie Eraserhead (except for the revulsion). It evokes a time when “museum” and “shrine” could be synonyms. Apparently there’s been much discussion about what is true and what is fictional in the exhibit content. I soon stopped worrying about that. I recognized enough bits of fact here and there to content myself with the assumption that it was all true, or true enough. (As I was advised once during a trip to India: “Believe everything and trust nothing.”)
Since so much has already been written about the museum, I doubt that I have any novel thoughts on it. But it was the most memorable part of my AAM 2010 experience, so I’m going to write about it anyways. (In college, my French lit professor would mark my papers, “i don’t think you’re right about this, but you made a good argument. B+” I can only hope to do as well here.)
My visit to the museum fazed me completely until, after looking around for an hour, we had tea with the museum founder David Wilson. He told an anecdote that gave me the, yes, “on-site insight” around which I could start to make sense of my experience. He said that at age five, he had gotten lost in the Science Museum in London, and sitting on a bench in a vaulted exhibit hall, overwhelmed by the place, had an epiphany about museums, and the muse, that influenced his entire life. Or something like that. For me, all aspects of the museum worked in concert to create a similar experience. For example, I spent some time in a small booth watching a flickering film about an obscure 17th century natural philosopher named Kircher (”The last man to know everything,” according to the subtitle of a biography of Kircher in the museum bookshop.) The soundtrack starts with a sentimental orchestral score and Kircher’s words, spoken in German. Then a narrator begins translating, relating Kircher’s views about some natural phenomenon. I really thought that if I listened and watched carefully, I would understand Kircher’s ideas, but I never quite could. As the minutes went by, the German voice and background music very gradually swelled in volume, until eventually the English narration was nearly lost in the mix. At least that’s what it seemed like; I’m not entirely sure if that was real or just my impression. Either way, I felt in the presence of knowledge, mystery and wonder….a powerful feeling, even with actual comprehension just out of reach. Or maybe it was so powerful because actual comprehension felt just out of reach.
That was a common feeling during my visit: fascinated by the exhibits but usually not quite understanding them, or not knowing how to understand them. And it was partly the abundance of information—lengthy (by modern standards) text panels and seemingly endless audio narrations—that created the immersive sense of mystery. Like when you swim out into the ocean, as the sandy floor blurs into the underwater haze, you viscerally understand that the water is getting deeper and deeper, frighteningly deep, even though you haven’t and won’t plumb those depths.
Did I learn anything? I think so….but let’s just say that I would have performed poorly in an exit survey. In the modern world of museums, of course, this would be a problem. The AAM sessions I went to were all about understanding the visitor, designing for accessibility and engagement, writing clear and concise interpretation, evaluating evidence-based outcomes, etc. Obviously these are all very good things. I feel like I should say something trite, like “But something is lost with that approach,” and maybe it is, but I’m not sure that’s what the Museum of Jurassic Technology really meant to me. When I take my two boys to museums, I watch to see the impressions that the exhibits make on them. Usually they race from one exhibit station to the next, but sometimes they’ll pause and gaze at something, in wonder. Generally I ask them what they find interesting. I try to gauge their comprehension and help clarify concepts that might be beyond them. Understanding is important. But so is wonder, as a pure thing. Maybe I should just shut up sometimes.
What is the Museum of Jurassic Technology about? What did I learn there? What did it mean to me? I still don’t know. And that’s what I like about it.
- Dave Schaller Says:
May 28th, 2010 at 12:45 pm Turns out I was wrong. A friend of mine perfectly summarized the museum in a few words: “Lucid to the point of hallucination.”
- Chris Castle Says:
May 31st, 2010 at 3:25 pm Hi Dave – Enjoyed your review! I have yet to visit the Museum of Jurassic Technology but empathize with your feelings about not knowing what you learned but liking it. My family and I visit a similar sort of museum when we were in London a few years ago. The Dennis Severs House http://www.dennissevershouse.co.uk/ – established by an individual and maintained after his death by volunteers – the experience we had there was totally mesmerizing but still mysterious.