Education and the Fictive Museum: Visiting L.A.’s Museum of Jurassic Technology

“People think the museum is what happens inside the case, but it isn’t,” said David Wilson. Mr. Wilson and I were sitting in the rooftop atrium of his museum, drinking tea with lemon, listening to the fountain and the doves, and talking about museums and belief systems. He explained that in fact the museum happens outside the display cases – between or around them. In my words, the museum is contextual, a complexity effect. I asked how, as the museum grew, Mr. Wilson and his colleagues had managed that complexity. He laughed and said that they don’t “manage” anything of the kind. They simply do their best to observe it.

Museum of Jurassic Technology Facade - 9341 Venice Blvd. in Culver City - Credit Jennifer Bastian. Museum of Jurassic Technology Facade - 9341 Venice Blvd. in Culver City - Credit Jennifer Bastian.

Our conversation, and the peaceful, timeless air of the atrium, was punctuated by the sound of sirens and helicopter blades: an August afternoon in Culver City, Los Angeles. I’d traveled to L.A. especially to visit the Museum of Jurassic Technology, of which Mr. Wilson is the director, a pilgrimage I made precisely because this institution, as its Jubilee Catalogue so confidently states, “has earned and occupies the foremost position in its branch of service.” What exactly is this “branch of service?” It's not simply the museum's stated purpose of “the advancement of knowledge and the public appreciation of the Lower Jurassic,” whatever the Lower Jurassic might mean in this context. I believe that the service the M.J.T. offers us is that of the fictive museum, of which it is undoubtedly the foremost exemplar. I’m an artist-researcher, pursuing a PhD at the Royal College of Art in London. Fictive museums are my chosen field, and I’d like to introduce here both the concept in general, and the immense value of these idiosyncratic institutions – as well as the questions they raise – to education.

Perhaps the best place to start is this term: fictive. I’m using fictive for two reasons. The first is in order to link with the work of Antoinette LaFarge, also an artist-researcher, who works at U.C. Irvine. LaFarge is currently writing a book on fictive art, by which she means “plausible fictions created through production of real-world objects, events, and entities.” While I’m not quite convinced how “plausible” entities like the M.J.T.’s exhibit about discovering a bat with the ability to fly through solid objects are, there’s no doubt that if the M.J.T. is art, it’s fictive art. The second reason I like the word fictive is its existing use in anthropology, and, in one application, adoption law. In both these fields, fictive kinship describes family structures outside those legally sanctioned by certificate of birth or marriage, such as a godparent who brings up a child without formal legal status, though they may be the only true family the child has ever known. In this case, the fictive is arguably more real than the factual; do we define true family by legal certification, genetic testing, or by a lived experience of secure emotional attachment and care? I raise this example to demonstrate that seemingly dry questions – questions of how something is or isn’t defined, and how we decide what is true, both personally and institutionally – are complex and emotional negotiations, with significant consequences.

Ironically, the contemporary museum’s efforts to address this complexity by including multiple perspectives within exhibitions, aimed at demonstrating the partiality and fallibility of the museum’s own narratives, has had precisely the opposite effect. Ralph Rugoff, director of London’s Hayward Gallery, made this point when writing about none other than the M.J.T. itself back in the ‘90s, in his essay, “Beyond Belief: The Museum as Metaphor.” Rugoff’s perspective, which I fully endorse, is that when museums mention uncertainty within their wall didactics, or emphasize that there are multiple possible perspectives, they give the impression that the museum has considered all the options and represents the most reasonable consensus. While we – as academics and museum professionals – would certainly like to believe this, historically this has hardly been the case, and there is little reason to suppose today’s museum narratives are any less partial. The reality, of course, is that any short explanation of a complex or divisive subject is inevitably biased in what it deems appropriate for inclusion.

But what possible value could lie in the inclusion of material that seems intentionally confusing, misleading, or just patently absurd? In the era of Big Data, an age of exponential growth and unprecedented information overload, where our first point of call is the internet, museum education has a vital role to play. It’s no longer enough for us to teach facts – and perhaps it never was. Education today is about preparing ourselves and each other to navigate the sea of data, to learn what makes for a trustworthy source and how to search for one. Here, the fictive museum, and the M.J.T. in particular, has an essential contribution to make: subdued lighting and museum-grade vitrines lend material an instant authority, an authority we would all do well to question. The inescapable power of an institutional voice, particularly those voices which endeavor to be “neutral,” needs to be continually called into question, both by the public and by those researchers and museum professionals who are most heavily invested.

Portrait of Laika from the exhibit, Lives of Perfect Creatures - Dogs of the Soviet Space Program - Credit MJT. Portrait of Laika from the exhibit, Lives of Perfect Creatures - Dogs of the Soviet Space Program - Credit MJT.

Beyond this, education can teach certain habits of mind: compassionate skepticism, mindful rigor, the awareness that information is not neutral and that there are no facts without interpretations. And the M.J.T. – a sort of weird hybrid figure between a dusty natural historian, a sly sideshow huckster, and the kind of zen monk who whacks you on the head while you’re meditating to bring about enlightenment – well, the M.J.T. may just be exactly what we need. Within the dimly lit halls of the M.J.T. are displays that could be accused of all of the above flaws in accuracy, and more. In an upstairs room dedicated to portraits of canine cosmonauts, for example, below a delicate oil painting of Laika, a votive flame burns. This gesture feels absurd, and yet absurdly touching. Though there is gentle irony here, it is not sardonic. And of all the references to unusual belief systems – whether in the displays about European folk magic or Inuit string figures, or in the Russian Orthodox icons and other religious paraphernalia that seem not so much to be on display, but to be sanctifying the space as though “in the wild” – not one seems arch or insincere.

In another conversation I had with Mr. Wilson, talking with Sara Velas of L.A.’s wonderful Velaslavasay Panorama, he mentioned he was reading a book called The Philosophy of As-If. I happened to know it. It was written by a German philosopher called Hans Vaihinger in 1911 and argues that intentional falsehoods are vital to human thought. As Vaihinger states, “many thought processes and thought constructs appear to be consciously false assumptions, which either contradict reality or are even contradictory in themselves, but which are intentionally thus formed in order to overcome difficulties of thought by this artificial deviation, and reach the goal of thought by roundabout ways and by paths. These artificial thought constructs are called 'Scientific Fictions' and distinguished as conscious creations by their ‘as if’ character.”

Back in the atrium, Mr. Wilson and I talked about the museum’s Russian Orthodox trappings; he confirmed he was not of the faith, but claimed to respect it in part because of its unflinching acclamation of the Biblical doctrine of bodily resurrection, a dogma most other branches of Christianity had “swept under the carpet.” From this, I didn’t get the opinion that Mr. Wilson was all for bodily resurrection. Rather, that he appears to be – how to put this? – a conceptual connoisseur of ‘as if’ beliefs. Mr. Wilson and the M.J.T. handle belief systems with the utmost respect, as guests, rather than specimens, and avoid presenting them in the all-too-familiar manner of a carnival sideshow. As the introduction to the M.J.T.’s exhibit Tell the Bees…, states: “Just as the investigations of various discarded vulgar remedies have led to many important pharmacological discoveries, the investigation of cast-aside ‘superstitions’ or vulgar knowledge often leads to important advances in the ways in which we understand the mechanisms of the world around us – ontological understandings.”

Collection of horns at the Museum of Jurassic Technology - Credit MJT. Collection of horns at the Museum of Jurassic Technology - Credit MJT.

The fictive museum, then, has a double value for education. Firstly, it encourages skepticism in a manner that no bald instruction to “question your sources” could ever do alone. Impossible to accept, yet impossible to dismiss, the M.J.T. is an ideal field-trip destination for scholars of any level of age or experience: like any good parable, it can be enjoyed and discussed by infants and experts alike. And secondly, the M.J.T. teaches by example something too easily forgotten. In its inimitable, idiosyncratic manner, the M.J.T. promotes wonder and reverence for the outlandish, compassion and gentleness when encountering material that appears absurd or inconsistent. This attitude, again, is vital for scholars of any age or level of expertise. Whether we feel we have identified internal contradictions in a theory of tectonic plate formation, in religious conceptions of foetal growth, or in “superstitious” convictions regarding the value of talking to bees, the respectful manner with which we approach the beliefs of others is of vital importance. True scholarship lies in looking at our own beliefs with the same skepticism we apply to others', and approaching the beliefs of others with as much respect as we do our own.