His name was Athanasius Kircher. A 17th-century contemporary of Galileo, he was an astonishingly accomplished man - inventor, composer, founder of one of the first public museums, mathematician, and more.
Never heard of him? Not many people have. But thanks to the highly creative efforts of a highly unusual museum, Kircher's life has finally been presented to the public in an exhibit titled, "The World is Bound With Secret Knots: The Life and Work of Athanasius Kircher, 1602-1680."
You'll find the installation at one of Los Angeles's quirkier institutions - the Museum of Jurassic Technology, a storefront operation that has won a devoted following among museum lovers, from professionals such as the director of the nearby J. Paul Getty Museum to tourists from as far away as Germany.
Opened in 1989, along a culturally barren stretch of Venice Boulevard, the museum is the eccentric creation of David Wilson, a former film special-effects designer. Rooted in the natural history museums of the 17th century - when collections ranged from the natural world to works of art to mysterious, unexplainable phenomena - the Museum of Jurassic Technology is an oddity in this relentlessly modern city, where celebrity and self-promotion generally hold more popular appeal than quiet reflection and thoughtful discovery.
"We were never intending to cause people to think certain things, or to have certain kinds of thoughts," says Mr. Wilson, of his original intent in founding the museum. "It was more a desire to provide people with a place to think."
And the Museum of Jurassic Technology does indeed do that - in fact, it makes most people think twice.
That's because each of the 35 permanent installations in this roughly 4,500-square-foot space blurs the line between truth and fiction, forcing visitors to question whether what they're seeing represents a little-known piece of history, a bizarre artifact from the natural world, or simply an artist's invention - and whether that distinction even matters.
"It's a museum about the fascination of things," says John Walsh, director of the Getty Museum. "The displays there are of wondrous and perplexing things. And the explanations of why they are that way often involve stories that on the face of it are not too probable, that sort of stretch your mind."
Take the Kircher exhibit, a small, exquisitely designed series of replications of his work, ranging from his theories on magnetism to complicated optical illusions. Kircher's analysis of the Tower of Babble, the exhibit notes, proved that "to reach the nearest heavenly body, the moon, the tower would have to be 178,672 miles high." The structure would have tipped Earth "from its position at the center of the universe."
It could be said that Kircher missed the point; after all, his contemporary, Galileo, was arguing at the same time that the sun, not the Earth, is the center of the solar system.
But there's something else to question here, too - and that's whether Athanasius Kircher ever existed at all.
Wilson swears he did, citing libraries that house his books. But then, Wilson swears that all his exhibits are factual, including the case of the little-known species of bat that flies through walls, or the rain forest ant that inhales a rare fungus and climbs to the top of the forest canopy where it impales itself and waits to die.
It's all seriously done, each installation carefully constructed and beautifully lit. But there's also an underlying sense of irony, a feeling that someone is pulling your leg.
Writer Lawrence Wechsler was so intrigued by this aspect of the museum that he wrote an award-winning book, "Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Wonder." In it, he explored the veracity of the exhibits - discovering a delightful blend of artifice and surprising nuggets of truth.
Mr. Wechsler isn't the only one drawn to the museum's contradictions. Since it first opened, when 10 visitors a day "was cause for celebration," says Wilson, the museum now attracts some 10,000 visitors a year. Walter and Elvira Moers, a couple from Germany making their second visit recently, love the museum so much that they donated $1,000 before they left.
"This is just such a great place," says Mr. Moers. "We read about it in a book and didn't know if it was fiction or nonfiction. Is it art? What is it? It's a fascinating place."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society