From the outside, the Museum of Jurassic Technology looks unassuming with a small door on a busy street in Culver City. As soon as you enter, it feels as though you’ve entered a different time and space. You’re greeted by a museum attendant seated at a desk in the dimly lit entry/giftshop where shelves are crowded with books, various artifacts, and unique jewelry. They ask if you’ve visited before, inform you that cellphones and pictures are prohibited, and tell you that Turkish style tea is available in the tearoom on the second floor. There are no maps or exhibit guides. Instead, you walk through a curtained doorway into the unknown.
The museum is small, and since the pandemic, reservations for time slots can be made on their website (mjtgiftshop.org). In my opinion, this has only made the museum experience even better by making it even more intimate with fewer visitors in the galleries at a time. Tickets are only $12, but the hours are a bit unusual, open only Thursdays and Fridays from 2pm-8pm, as well as Saturdays and Sundays from 12pm to 6pm. While it is a bit limiting, the experience is well worth the planning required.
Founded by David Hildebrand Wilson and Diana Drake Wilson in 1988, the Museum of Jurassic Technology is reminiscent more of a 19th-century cabinet of curiosities than a modern museum. The exhibits vary from microscopic miniatures to an entire gallery dedicated to historical folk remedies to a room full of portraits of dogs that Russia sent to space. The objects feel obscure and at times deeply personal as a look into the interests of an unknown collector. The displays are unique as well: visitors can pick up old telephones to hear more information; tiny projections of medieval beasts can be seen on glass; and videos about various topics can be viewed in small booths fit for two. The labels are often poetic and long, and it’s easy to get lost in the mazelike layout of the museum.
The museum’s website can be equally confounding. There is no explanation regarding what the museum is about, and no clear explanation of what “Jurassic Technology” even is. For most museums, these characteristics would be an issue, but at the Museum of Jurassic Technology, it’s a gain, not a loss. In an article for the Smithsonian Magazine on the museum, Matt Blitz states that the Museum of Jurassic Technology is Hildebrand’s “love letter to every museum everywhere”, which it is, but it’s also so much more. It is a museum of fables, oddities, forgotten stories, science, magic, mythical beasts, and beautiful artifacts. It is a museum and an experience that transports you into a new dimension designed to be explored.
The museum’s medieval bestiary wing is a prime example of the ability to transport visitors into a magical world. You walk down a hallway into a brightly lit room that is entirely different than the one you just exited, complete with European style architecture, a domed ceiling, and walls covered in murals painted by Jose Clemente Orozco. Throughout the room are little enclaves highlighting various beasts and related allegories, harkening back to the popular medieval belief that each animal had its own special meaning and lesson that was created by God. Some displays feature tiny projected moving images of the creatures onto open bestiary and bibles, creating the illusion of actual life on the page.
I initially visited when I was a senior in high school with my museum studies class. It was the first museum our class went to, and as soon as I walked in, I fell in love. We usually view museums as institutions of truth; they shape how we view history, art, and science. When we walk into a gallery, we often take what we read on the labels as fact, and believe what we see as reality, but at the Museum of Jurassic Technology, fact and fiction intertwine. Was there really a human woman that grew a horn? Was there a time in the world when people believed eating mice could cure bed-wetting? Does it even matter? When information, whether true or false, is passed down through time, we transform it, to some degree, into history. The goal of that initial visit was to make us question what really makes a museum a museum. I’ve returned many times, most recently in November for a birthday trip. I can decidedly say that each visit I enter the galleries with eagerness and curiosity. And now, even years later, each visit leads me to the question posed to me upon my first visit: what makes a museum a museum?
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Eva Goldstein-Moore resides in Oakland, California, and is currently earning her Masters in Museum Studies at Johns Hopkins with the goal of pursuing a career that allows her to make museums more equitable, educational, and accessible. After studying art history as an undergraduate, she still enjoys writing about art and its cultural significance, which can be found on her blog, Ugly Art.