A modest introduction to an august institution

August 20, 2015 § Leave a comment

As the result of a recent visit, I can unequivocally state that among the many prestigious cultural institutions in our region, the Museum of Jurassic Technology ranks in the top tier.

Created in 1984 by David Hildebrand Wilson as a series of traveling exhibits, the MJT established a permanent home on Venice Boulevard in Culver City c. 1988, its distinguished collection slowly growing over the years to now encompass multiple galleries on two floors.

Mr. Wilson has modeled his institution on kunstkammeren of by-gone eras: “cabinets of wonder” that learned men created for study and edification. The MJT’s focii, as with those earlier  accumulations, are natural history and technology, though it does not limit its reach to a specialized audience.

As a Museum document succinctly states:

Like a coat of two colors, the Museum serves dual functions. On the one hand, the Museum provides the academic community with a specialized repository of relics and artifacts from the lower Jurassic, with an emphasis on those that demonstrate unusual or curious technological quality. On the other hand, the Museum serves the general public with a hands-on experience of ‘life in the Jurassic.” 

Mr. Wilson has revivified the kunstkammer with professional installations and documentation. Displays situate objects in context-setting dioramas with ample and erudite explanations. The Museum even makes use of advanced Anthropocene technology, such as recorded lectures accessed via telephone handsets.

To his credit, Mr. Wilson has avoided excesses of earlier kunstkammeren, which often gave prominence to the disturbingly deformed and freakish. The MJT presents only uplifting phenomena that, while perhaps strange, add to the sum total of human knowledge about the remarkable world in which we live. A hushed atmosphere throughout the galleries indicates the wonderment and appreciation with which visitors regard its treasures.

As one example of how the Museum makes material accessible, consider the diorama detailing the search for Myotis lucifugus, endemic to the Tripsicum Plateau of the circum-Caribbean region of northern South America. It tells the story of how, during a sojourn among the indigenous peoples of the region, the Dozo, an American ethnographer named Bernard Maston in 1872 heard from locals about a tiny creature with the capacity to fly through solid objects (hence, its colloquial name: Deprong Mori, or Piercing Devil).

Decades later, the eminent chiroptologist Prof. Donald R. Griffith would discover Maston’s notes and, working on the hypothesis that the Deprong Mori was most likely a bat, mounted an eight-month expedition to track this hitherto unknown representative of the Order Chiroptera. In a truly brilliant bit of field work, Prof. Griffith determined that Myotis lucifugus, like all bats, relied upon echolocation for maneuvering, but that its sonar used ultraviolet wavelengths! Furthermore, though the Deprong Mori proved elusive, slipping through nets as easily as it did walls of Dozo huts, Griffith and his dedicated team devised the means to capture and preserve what no one had heretofore been able to lay hands on.

These and other fascinating elements of Prof. Griffith’s singular discovery are illuminated, quite literally, in synchronization with the accompanying narrative.

The museum employs this son et lumiere technique to great effect in the Delani/Sonnabend Halls, which explore the serendipitously intertwined lives of Wilhem Sonnabend, his son Geoffrey, and Madalena Delani, child of Rumanian immigrants who became a world-renowned soprano despite being afflicted with Korsokoff Syndrome, which restricted her short-term memory.

The affecting installation presents gripping details of the efforts of Sonnabend père, a German emigre to Argentina and structural engineer, who oversaw an attempt to bridge Iguazu Falls at its widest and most thunderous point, Garganta del Diablo. Weather-wracked and destroyed before completion, via holography the bridge can nonetheless be viewed as if completed, a stunning accomplishment.

There is much more revealed about subsequent engineering accomplishments of the elder Sonnebend, but it is mere prologue to the magisterial work of Sonnabend fils: his three-volume Obliscence, Theories of Forgetting and the Problem of Matter, the formulation of which was triggered by a performance of romantic lieder sung by Madalena Delani!

I will let you discover for yourselves how the serpentine intertwining of personalities and location brought this about; what is important to know is that the museum does a great service by presenting an encapsulation of Geoffrey’s theories, credited to one Valentine Worth–not an easy thing to do! If this alone were the museum’s sole exhibit, visitors would be amply rewarded.

But there is more—much, much more guaranteed to expand one’s worldview, so that by the time visitors make their way through the portrait gallery of canine cosmonauts to the final, sunlit room at the front of the second floor, one is ready for the glass of graciously-offered tea and tray of cookies, both complimentary.

As if that were insufficient, just a few steps away a rooftop cloister and garden awaits, providing visitors with an opportunity to contemplate the extraordinary things just witnessed, soothed by gentle cooing of white doves that nest on the rooftop. If you are fortunate, Mr. Wilson himself may be present playing one of his renaissance instruments.

The Museum of Jurassic Technology is open Thursday, 2 p.m. to 8 p.m.; Friday, Saturday, and Sunday noon to 6 p.m. Admission is $8, unless you are over 60, a student, or unemployed, in which case you pay $5. Children under 12 are free.

These modest prices are yet another indication how eager are Mr. Wilson and the Museum’s patrons that everyone be able to take advantage of the great, arcane knowledge stored within the MJT’s walls.


As an introduction to David Hildebrand Wilson and the Museum of Jurassic Technology, consider perusing a copy of Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder: Pronged Ants, Horned Humans, Mice on Toast, and Other Marvels of Jurassic Technology by Lawrence Weschler. Published in 1995 by Pantheon, the book is out of date yet manages to impart a flavor of what you will find in the actual Museum.

A Song for the Genius Child

August 4, 2015 § Leave a comment

When the Library Foundation’s ALOUD lecture series announced it would present Langston_Hughesexcerpts from Langston Hughes’ Ask Your Mama: 12 Moods for Jazz, I made reservations immediately.

A lengthy and dense work, Ask your Mama is a scream of a poem—Hughes wrote the entire piece with the caps lock on—a phantasmagorical journey through centuries of injustice, brutality, suffering. Sadly, it never received the full multi-media treatment envisioned by Hughes before he died in 1967.

Then, late in the ‘00s, composer Laura Karpman, in collaboration with soprano Jessye Norman and neo-soul/rap group The Roots, created a fully orchestrated production that premiered at Carnegie Hall and later played to sell-out crowds at the Hollywood Bowl and Apollo Theatre in Harlem.

Earlier this month, Avie Records released a studio recording of “Ask Your Mama” featuring soprano Janai Brugger. She joined the composer on stage at the Central Library to reprise sections of the work. Victoria Kirsch accompanied on piano along with bassist David Young; Taura Stinson provided additional vocals as Karpman led the capacity audience on a tour through her production.

I harbor more than a casual interest in Langston Hughes.


Picture the year: 1963.

Picture the place: an insular small town built of red brick and prejudice

Picture me: ninth-grader, recent transplant, outsider.

Hughes came into my life through the grace of older siblings and the nonchalance of liberal parents who encouraged me to read anything, as long as it wasn’t Nancy Drew. In him I found a companion in outsiderness, an otherness that bound us together and, paradoxically, kept us apart. For both, I remain deeply grateful.

With warp and weft of words, Hughes wove magic carpets that didn’t take me away from  the pain of not-belonging but into its belly, transforming distress into art.

This is a song for the genius child.

Sing it softly for the song is wild.

Sing it softly as ever you can—

Lest the song get out of hand.

Abandoned as a child, first by his father and then his mother, Hughes wrote lines that pulsed with loneliness, yet also with hope. He stood in the mire “seeking the stars,” as one of his poems attests. His life and literature abounded with dreams deferred and opportunities seized.

At 19 he left college from the strain of Ivy League racial prejudice. As a 23-year-old bus boy, he shyly, and slyly, slipped his poems to a noted littérateur in a hotel dining room and got his photograph in newspapers across America.

Nobody loves a genius child

Can you love an eagle,/ Tame or wild?/ Wild or tame, 

Can you love a monster / Of frightening name?

I alway knew I was an eavesdropper, an interloper, listening to Hughes across the chasm of America’s racial divide. Harlem rent parties, Parisian jazz bands, dark virgins and red stockings, daybreak in Alabama: This was not my world. I might imagine myself a kindred spirit, but the reality of being “Negro” in America was as far from me as the surface of the moon. Through Hughes, I learned about that reality: the lives of domestics and elevator “boys,” sharecroppers and urban party-goers. He introduced me to the Harlem Renaissance, Crispus Attucks, be-bop, lynching, and Jim Crow laws. He pulled back the curtain on a different world and I marveled, albeit from afar.

Nobody loves a genius child.

Kill him—and let his soul run wild!

Hughes plowed literary ground for me so that, when the time came, I could hear James Baldwin and Richard Wright and, too many years later, Zora Neale Hurston, his one-time friend and collaborator. Because of his conscientious words and phrasing, I would read, admire, and even dare to teach Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Paule Marshall, bell hooks, Audre Lorde.

It all goes back to the Hughes, who addressed the alienation of a 14-year-old white girl, separated by race, a half-century in age, and a literary era long since passed. My affection for Langston Hughes was improbable—and yet, there it was and has remained.

Thank you, Mr. Genius Child.

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