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A quirky museum of the real and unreal

By Lonnie Burstein HewittContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / March 23, 2005



On the seedy side of Venice Boulevard, in a neighborhood almost untouched by L.A. chic, is one of the strangest little museums in the world.

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Behind an unassuming storefront is the Museum of Jurassic Technology, which has nothing to do with either the age of dinosaurs or the cool, bright multimedia favored by other museums. Though it claims to be "a hands-on experience of life in the Jurassic," it's a wildly eclectic assemblage of natural and man-made wonders from the 16th through the 20th centuries, highlighting odd points where art and science intersect.

In short, it's a fun house for thinking people.

Inside is a treasure-cave of curiosities, from tinkling medieval mobiles to micro-miniature sculptures carved into sewing needles to a display of unusual (and possibly apocryphal) folk remedies, including an hors d'oeuvre of mice on toast, identified as a bed-wetting cure.

Where do these exhibits come from, and are they what they claim to be? They're all carefully labeled, but ... how can you be sure?

Among many other things are mysterious-looking photos of Los Angeles trailer parks (mid-20th century), the skull of the Ringnot sloth (prehistoric, if it ever existed), and a horn, five inches high, that ostensibly grew on the head of a late-17th-century woman.

There are lovely things too, such as radiographs of flowers, and intricate mosaics made out of bits of butterfly wings, where you marvel at the execution.

Each exhibit invites you to linger - with detailed, slightly loony descriptions - and offers microscopes for closer inspection.

Wandering through the maze of small, dimly lit rooms is like being lost inside the mind of some passionate eccentric, accompanied by a soundtrack of soft, sacred-sounding music and solemn voices describing the sights in English and in German.

First opened in 1989, the museum is the brainchild of founder/director David Wilson, who started it as a homage to 17th-century collectors and a sort of community outreach to attract local people who had never been in a museum. These days, it draws a wider audience, with more than 6,000 visitors annually now making their way here from places as far away as Europe and Japan.

The mix of the real and unreal can be disorienting, but the idea of the place, as Mr. Wilson once said, is "to reintegrate people to wonder." It wasn't until the 19th century that museums were split into categories - art or natural history or science - rather than being general collections of interesting things. In a sense, everything in the MJT is incredible - for different reasons.

Two years ago, an upstairs section was added, with a little movie theater and a tranquil tearoom that lets in the museum's only natural light.

On a recent visit, after watching a short film (in Russian) about a cross-eyed, left-handed man who invented a steel flea, my husband and I were offered tea from a samovar by a pleasant young woman, who then withdrew to a corner with two friends. While we sat by a fountain, sipping tea and tasting tiny cookies, they kept up a whispered, intense conversation in a language that sounded vaguely Slavic.

It was definitely a Jurassic experience.

Plan to spend at least an hour in the MJT. Any less, and you won't get a feeling for it. Any longer, and you may have some trouble reentering the "real" world outside.

To learn more about the museum and its weird sensibility, read Lawrence Wechsler's book, "Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Wonder," or the museum's own offering, published by "The Society for the Diffusion of Useful Information," which includes descriptive notes on selected exhibits and is titled simply "The Museum of Jurassic Technology - Jubilee Catalogue."

The Museum of Jurassic Technology is located at 9341 Venice Blvd. in Culver City, about a 20-minute drive from the Los Angeles airport. Even the hours are idiosyncratic: Thursday, 2-8 p.m.; Friday, Saturday, Sunday, noon-6 p.m. Suggested donation: $5. Phone: (310) 836-6131. Website: www.mjt.org.

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