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Mr. Wilson's Cabinet Of Wonder: Pronged Ants, Horned Humans, Mice on… (1995)

by Lawrence Weschler

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1,0581914,811 (3.95)47
Finalist for Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction Finalist for National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction Pronged ants, horned humans, a landscape carved on a fruit pit--some of the displays in David Wilson's Museum of Jurassic Technology are hoaxes. But which ones? As he guides readers through an intellectual hall of mirrors, Lawrence Weschler revisits the 16th-century "wonder cabinets" that were the first museums and compels readers to examine the imaginative origins of both art and science.… (more)
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Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder: Pronged Ants, Horned Humans, Mice on Toast, and Other Marvels of Jurassic Technology, by Lawrence Weschler
Vintage Books (1995)

“[A] small nondescript storefront operation located along the main commercial drag of downtown Culver City in the middle of West Los Angeles’s endless pseudo-urban sprawl: the Museum of Jurassic Technology, according to the fading blue banner facing the street.” Lawrence Weschler, a staff writer for The New Yorker, describes the otherwise anonymous location for one of the oddest museums on the American landscape. He details the exhibits of the Museum and the life of its creator, David Wilson, in Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder: Pronged Ants, Horned Humans, Mice on Toast, and Other Marvels of Jurassic Technology.

After reading this book, I had to ask, “Where has this book been all my life?” Despite majoring in Public History, the intellectual adjunct to academic history focusing on museums, historical societies, and the like, I had never encountered this book. Even with my Museum Studies classes taken at the Milwaukee Public Museum this was never on the mandatory reading list. It should be.

For an otherwise short book – the paperback text is only 108 pages, albeit with a lengthy section of endnotes – there is a lot to unpack. Weschler divides the book into two sections. The first, “Inhaling the Spore,” is a lengthy narrative tour through the Museum of Jurassic Technology. The second, “Cerebral Growth,” is a combination biography of David Wilson and the history of modern museums. The second sections explores the digressive route Wilson took to eventually become head of his own idiosyncratic museum. This digression is combined with a digressive exploration of the kunst- and wunderkammern (German for “art- and wonder cabinets”).

Wonder cabinets became popular around the sixteenth and seventeenth century. During this time (early modern Europe in academic parlance) Europe experienced an extended period of culture shock due to the discoveries made through contact and exploration with North America. The culture shock was coupled with a revival of classical learning and a fascinating with esoteric and occult knowledge. Curiosity cabinets reflected this simultaneous combination of global exploration and interior contemplation. Prior to the time, Europe was dominated by a medieval mindset. The curiosity cabinet fell out of favor when the Enlightenment popularized a more scientific and rational mentality.

Granted, the statement above is a broad-brush generalization. Weschler also concedes that despite the new people, places, and things discovered during early modern times, it was also a period of cruelty and barbarism.

All this is a roundabout introduction to what David Wilson is attempting with his Museum of Jurassic Technology. In his own way, he has created a modern curiosity cabinet. A tiny jewel box museum mixing fantasy and fact. Wilson’s brilliance comes from the Museum’s admixing of parody, homage, and critique of modern museum practice. A visitor can’t readily distinguish between a factual exhibit or one created by Wilson’s imagination. He has mimicked to the voice of Institutional Authority with incredible precision. In his interactions with visitors and at museum conferences, he never “breaks character.” Everything is done with a straight face and with the utmost serious. (Contrast this with The Church of the SubGenius, which is a parody religion, except when it isn’t.)

After reading the book, I realized it was one of my top favorite non-fiction works. Unlike fiction, non-fiction is so broad and varied, it is hard to label something an all-time favorite. Like the House on the Rock and the Salt Lake City Temple, the Museum of Jurassic Technology will go on my list for an American Odd Pilgrimage.

The Museum of Jurassic Technology is yet another example of California as American laboratory of weirdness and idiosyncrasy.

https://driftlessareareview.com/2021/04/09/american-odd-mr-wilsons-cabinet-of-wo... ( )
1 vote kswolff | May 13, 2021 |
Loved it. I tried (and failed) for years to describe the Museum of Jurassic Technology, and Weschler's done it. ( )
  KatrinkaV | Mar 13, 2021 |
A book about a man who had an epiphany who wanted to do something beautiful and if you don't like it f- you! ( )
  uncleflannery | May 16, 2020 |
The first half of this book describes the author's explorations and investigations of Los Angeles's Museum of Jurassic technology and encounters with its proprietor, David Wilson. And a weird, weird place this is. Weird enough that I felt compelled to look it up and make sure it was actually a real establishment, and not some sort of elaborate prank or fantasy. Turns out, it is real, and despite the fact that this book was published in 1995, it's still there, and still doing... whatever the heck it is that it's doing.

Because, the way Weschler describes it, it's hard to tell to what extent this place qualifies as a museum and to what extent it's some kind of bizarre art project. It contains exhibits and information that are strange, and strangely presented, but perfectly real, and others that are completely made up. Or partly made up. Or completely crackpotty. Or something. It can be very hard to tell the difference, and very hard to tell when Wilson is being serious and when he's being ironic.

Weschler clearly falls down quite a rabbit hole here, and the main effect is to leave one blinking and going, "What the heck did I just read?" Which seems entirely appropriate to the subject matter.

The second half mostly consists of a little historical exploration of the wunderkammer, or cabinet of wonder, a tradition in whose footsteps the Wilson's odd collection certainly follows. The subject matter here is interesting, but the disjointed writing style which did such a good job capturing the feel of the Museum works less well here, and the rambling footnotes are more than a little distracting. ( )
  bragan | Dec 28, 2019 |
A fascinating subject: a museum which blurs the lines between factual exhibits and less verifiably truthful ones, but seeks to inspire wonder at all times. Much like the Museum of Jurassic Technology itself seems to be, based on the descriptions here, the book is a bit of a strange journey, with fits and stops and digressions. ( )
  mrgan | Oct 30, 2017 |
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Nothing is too wonderful to be true. -- Michael Faraday
Dedication
For Sara
my own living wonder
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Deep in the Cameroonian rain forests of west-central Africa there lives a floor-dwelling ant known as Megaloponera foetens, or more commonly, the stink ant.
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Finalist for Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction Finalist for National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction Pronged ants, horned humans, a landscape carved on a fruit pit--some of the displays in David Wilson's Museum of Jurassic Technology are hoaxes. But which ones? As he guides readers through an intellectual hall of mirrors, Lawrence Weschler revisits the 16th-century "wonder cabinets" that were the first museums and compels readers to examine the imaginative origins of both art and science.

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