Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Wonder by Lawrence Weschler

Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Wonder: Pronged Ants, Horned Humans, Mice on Toast, and Other Marvels of Jurassic Technology

Expanded from a Harper's magazine article, this short and entertaining book introduces readers to the strange Museum of Jurassic* Technology in Culver City, California. With nary a trace of irony the proprietor, David Wilson, has stocked his storefront museum with weird and mind-boggling curiosities (a bat embedded in a solid block of lead, illuminated from the inside, no less!) and accompanies the exhibits with pitch-perfect museum quality explanatory texts and recorded remarks. The MJT is a Chinese box of fiction and reality - an elaborate puzzle begging to be deciphered.

The MJT is a modern iteration of the Renaissance and Enlightenment Wonderkammer, private museums which can consist of (as the name suggests) a collection of curiosities exhibited in a cabinet or an entire suite of rooms given over to the bounty of natural oddities encountered during the first centuries of European exploration and discovery. David Wilson's cabinet is chock full of imaginative and awe-inspiring panoramas and exquisitely detailed minutiae, and has a healthy cult following among museum professionals. Weschler's fascination with the MJT is genuine and his story (which he seems reluctant to put to bed) is enthusiastically told.

The second half of the book, an expansion of the narrative, looks at the history of the Wunderkammer in general, and Weschler doggedly runs down connections and convergences between some of the more famous ones and the MJT. One feels admiration for Wilson's having pieced together such a remarkably seamless reality, while still feeling a tinge of regret for seeing some of his minor secrets revealed. Weschler also cites some apparently remarkable books on the history of wonder cabinets, works which are, alas, ridiculously rare and expensive, but to which Wilson clearly had access. This book is a good exposition of our ancestors' curiosity about the world of wonders around them, and a reminder that our world is no less wonder-full.

*As a note of explanation, Jurassic in Mr. Wilson's imagination refers not to the time of the terrible lizards, but rather to a what is prosaically known as the Nile River Delta.