Sunday, July 29, 2012

Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Wonder by Lawrence Weschler

I should have read this book in 2006 while working on the wunderkammer but better late than never.  The Museum of Jurassic Technology, along with finding John Baldessari's house, is one of the must-sees next time I am in Los Angeles. The odd hours Mr. Wilson keeps have never aligned with my schedule and it therefore becomes a more sought after location to visit when I've tried twice ending in failure. Plus, it's right next to the CLUI which I absolutely have to visit as well (one can't only visit the Wendover location and not see the real source!).

Some highlights from Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Wonder include:

"The visitor to the Museum of Jurassic Technology continually finds himself shimmering between wondering at (the marvels of nature) and wondering whether (any of this could possibly be true). And it's that very shimmer, the capacity for such delicious confusion, Wilson sometimes seems to suggest, that may constitute the most blessedly wonderful thing about being human."

I enjoyed Weschler's investigations on whether or not the wall text in the museum was indeed true. He and Errol Morris most certainly have something in common as their research approaches obsessiveness. They call, they visit, and they must get to the bottom of everything. Eventually Weschler gives up and accepts the museum as it is but chronicles the path thoroughly.

"Ever since the late Renaissance... these sorts of collections got referred to as kunst- und Wunderkammern. Technically, the term describes a collection of a type that's pretty much disappeared today - with the exception, perhaps of the Jurassic - where natural wonders were displayed alongside works of art and various man-made feats of ingenuity. It's only much later, in the nineteenth century, that you see the breakup into separate art, natural history, and technology museums. But in the earlier collections, you had the wonders of God spread out there cheek-by-jowl with the wonders of man, both presented as aspects of the same thing, which is to say, the Wonder of God."

I didn't realize that separation of art museums from history and technology was as late as the 19th century. If I could step back in time and see just one of these culminations.... That paragraph lends a little more history to what I didn't know about the inception of the modern day museum.

In his notes, Weschler also outlines the top ranking of "one-of-a-kind museums" compiled by Weissman Travel Reports in 1995. The Mütter Museum (one of my favorites) topped the list but these also sound intriguing: Museum of the Two-Headed Animals in Bamberg, Germany; the Barbie Museum in Palo Alto; and the Museum of Menstruation  (WTF?) that didn't make the list in Maryland. After perusing the Museum of Jurassic Technology's website and looking at its "Sympathetic Institutions," I can't help but want to visit some of these too.

Weschler ends the book with a wonderful quote from Italo Calvino in If on a Winter's Night A Traveler (which just bumped this book up in my library check-out list): "To my astonishment they take me home rather than to some secret hideaway and lock me in the catoptric room I had so carefully reconstructed from Athanasius Kircher's drawings. The mirrored walls return my image an infinite number of times. Had I been kidnapped by myself?"

Athanasius Kircher's drawing of a parabolic horn which could amplify sound waves for the enjoyment of listeners via.

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