What was the best April Fool’s joke you saw this year? I bet it was one that had some elements of truth in it. You initially believed it, and thought “….what?” before remembering the date, and regaining skepticism. That feeling right before you realized it was fake, when you were still impressed and wowed by this unbelievable news, but confused about certain aspects of it, is the exact feeling you have when you’re in the Museum of Jurassic Technology, but you NEVER snap out of it.
I visited in 2008, and I’m still not sure what I saw and which parts of it were real or fake. This is a normal reaction. BoingBoing’s Mark Frauenfelder has said “I visit the Museum of Jurassic Technology once every few years to convince myself that it exists and isn’t just part of my dreams.” And New York Times’ Edward Rothstein wrote last year that he had “never been in a museum where the persistent question is: what kind of place is this?”
I also have to echo the New York Times’ warning that reading any further will spoil the experience for you. If you want to be surprised and amazed, stop reading right now, get on a plane to LA, and visit the museum yourself. If it’s real.
Five years after my visit to the Museum of Jurassic Technology, I think I finally figured out what kind of place it is, although I’m not quite sure it’s not part of my dreams either. After reading and thinking about it more, I realized that it is in a sense quite similar to the British Museum’s Enlightenment Room that I wrote about last week. It’s a museum about cabinets of curiosities.
The British Museum’s Enlightenment Room captures the style and history, but not the feeling of discovery and wonder that must have come with walking through a 17th century Cabinet of Curiosities. We know about the world now, and the objects in the British Museum are no longer as new and surprising as they were to the visitors of the first cabinets of curiosities. The Museum of Jurassic Technology, on the other hand, is right on the edge of a very fuzzy border of reality. Walking through it must invoke the same feeling as people had when they saw objects from other continents for the very first time in the 16th or 17th century.
I was warned about the veracity of the museum when I went, so I took everything with a grain of salt. After walking through the museum for an hour or so, I had convinced myself that absolutely everything was fake. The letters to Mount Wilson observatory, the life of opera singer Madelena Delani and memory researcher Geoffrey Sonnabend, the system of flipstick logic (see picture below).
I had never heard of any of these people, places, or things. They must be fake. Everything is fake. Nothing here is real, I was sure of it.
But I’m also relatively sure I saw a bezoar there. Not 100% sure, because I don’t have a photo of it, and I can’t find a reference to it anywhere online. It was definitely something like that. Something unusual, but something I had heard of, and something I knew existed. That made me wonder about the rest of the museum. Maybe some of the other things were real after all.
The stink ant of the Cameroon of West Central Africa is one of the permanent exhibits at the Museum of Jurassic Technology. It’s an ant that gets infected by a fungus, dies, walks along like a zombie, taken over by the fungus. The fungus grows through the ant’s head, as a spike, and releases spores down to the forest floor where it infects other ants. I assumed this to be an absolutely fabricated story, until I recently heard about zombie ants from more reliable sources.
Zombie ants are real? They are! But, the exhibit wasn’t quite true. The actual zombie ants are called Ophiocordyceps unilateralis. The ants in the museum were referred to as Megaloponera foetens, or stink ant. A search for that Latin name only brings up references to the Museum of Jurassic Technologies. A search for stink ant leads to Tapinoma sessile, a different ant altogether.
Remember last week, when I showed a picture of a mammoth tooth in the British Museum collection, which was originally displayed with a sign that said it was the tooth of a sea animal? It’s real, but it was wrong. It’s the authetic cabinet of curiosities feeling.
What else in the Museum of Jurassic Technology is real? If you want to have even more spoiled, read this report, in which the author tracks down one of the supposed scientists behind another museum display. He turns out to be a real scientist. Or not. Is the report even real?
Maybe everything is real, but just in the wrong time. The museum’s tea room is definitely real, but feels Victorian. But it can’t be the Victorian era, because outside the tea room is a gallery of paintings of dogs of the Soviet space program. Laika is there. Laika is real. Are the other dogs real? Probably.
When you step out of the Museum of Jurassic Technologies, you’re on the sidewalk of a busy street in Culver City. It’s real. It’s more real than many other parts of the LA area. Traffic. Houses. Gritty storefronts. A suburban street. As soon as you turn the corner, back to the parked car, you’re not sure anymore if the museum even existed.
Back at the hotel, you open the museum website. It looks like 1995.
It looks like a spoof website.
It looks like an April Fool’s joke. Is it?