I lived in Los Angeles for nearly a year before I visited the Museum of Jurassic Technology. Â I went on a whim with two friends, and none of us had visited the museum before. Â We could not have prepared ourselves for the experience; there is no other museum like the Museum of Jurassic Technology.
Without giving too much away about the museum — it’s the kind of place that needs to be visited to be understood, or at least given more words than I have allotted it today — in the Museum of Jurassic Technology, I had one of the most intense emotional experiences I have ever had. Â An extreme feeling of something swelled up inside of me, and it fed off of a similar feeling in my two friends. Â As Lawrence Weschler describes it in his definitive text on the museum, Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder, I was feeling “a bit out of order, all shards and powder.”Â
When we stumbled out of the museum into the jarring sunlight three hours after entering, I described the feeling of something as “hysterical confusion.”Â Â I didn’t realize until much later that I was having a particularly intense feeling of wonder.
“Wonder”Â is a word that is often used to describe museums. Â In the 16th and 17th centuries, when the first natural history museums were assembled, they were called wunderkammer, literally translated as “wonderful chambers,”Â but colloquially referred to as Cabinets of Curiosity. Â “Wonder”Â remains a descriptor Â today; for example, I stumbled across the word on the website of the children’s science museum in Toledo, Ohio — originally called COSI, the Center of Science and Industry, and now horribly renamed as “Imagination Station”Â — a place where my grandparents used to take me. Â “Our mission,”Â the website reads, “is to inspire in children the wonder of science through interactive hands-on exhibits.”Â
Though the word “wonder”Â is generally reserved for natural history or science museums, I feel a sense of wonder (of varying degrees) inside any kind of museum, and this wonder is wholly separate from any feeling that the objects inside the museum invoke.
As places to display things, museums are imperfect, but they try so hard to be exactly right. Â From the color of the walls (usually white) to the brightness of the light, a museum attempts to provide context for and information about the art, while also attempting to fade into the background. Â Like a good film score, a museum tries to create a mood without drawing attention to itself. Â However, once you start paying attention to the museum behind the objects, its hard stop seeing it.
I’m a museum-goer by nature. Â I feel a draw to museums, an appetite that has been with me my whole life. Â I go to museums as a tourist, certainly, but I also compulsively visit the museums in my hometown (formerly Chicago, Illnois and Oberlin, Ohio, currently Los Angeles, California). Â I’m interested in the history of museums and the culture of museums.
In this column, I will chronicle my past and future visits to museums, and try to make sense of how museums make me feel. Â As I often do when I have an appetite for something, I have been trying to find the words to express my feelings about museums by reading the words someone else has written. Â Reading Weschler’s Pulitzer Prize winning book about the Museum of Jurassic Technology renewed the excitement that I felt on the first visit, and it has been extremely gratifying to read Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads: The Culture and Evolution of Natural History Museums by Stephen T. Asma because his interest in the development and culture of museums mirrors mine. Â (Full disclosure: I’m such a fan big of Asma’s that I named my wooden rhinoceros after him. Â I own a wooden rhinoceros, for some reason).
To close this first column, I’ll quote Asma, who manages to succinctly sum up everything I’ve trying to say in the last 700 words (if you would like to imagine my rhino saying this, feel free): “Enthusiasm (the word means ‘to be filled with the gods’) is an emotional that museums often engender, and it suggests that one momentarily looses oneself to something bigger–[Museums] must continue to address our emotional faculties. Â They must continue to be sensual places.”Â
Catie Disabato lives 2.3 miles from the Museum of Jurassic Technology. Â She has written essays and conducted interviews for The Millions and The Rumpus and writes about music for Venus Zine.