Saturday, February 9, 2008

Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Wonders-- Lawrence Weschler-- Review

Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Wonders Pronged Ants, Horned Humans, Mice on Toast, and Other Marvels of Jurassic Technology by Lawrence Weschler is an odd and entertaining little book. It is the kind of book which a person can take a few evenings to sit and read. The writing is light and entertaining.

It is about the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles run by David Wilson. The purpose of the museum is not to tell the truth but to create wonder and change in the visitors views of the world. David Wilson is an artist more than a museum curator. It is very much like the old Cabinets of Curiosity where art, oddities, and natural history are mixed together in such a way as to make a person curious. Some of the exhibits are real and truthful and others are complete fabrications.

An example of one of the exhibits is Hagop Sandaljian's microminiature sculptures done in the eyes of needles. Sandaljian literally used a single human hair and worked between heartbeats to make these miniature sculptures. This is the page from the Museum of Jurassic Technology--

Other curiosities which the book describes are human horns, pronged ants, dioramas of folk remedies, a wall of antlers, the Sonnabend model of obliscence (a complete fabrication), mice on toast, and a variety of curiosities.

The museum itself is described as a little 1500 square foot storefront in Los Angeles. Occassionally the propietor David Wilson can be seen outside playing the accordion.

After describing the museum, David Weschler, the author goes into the history of the Wunderkammeren, or cabinet of wonders from the 16th century. This gets into truly odd mind expanding territory; hermetica, alchemy, early travels to strange corners of the world, and the beginnings of science and natural history.

There are small black and white photographs throughout the book. Some of the photographs include a photograph of a centaur skeleton on P.71, a print of Frederic Ruysch's Vanitas Mundi tableaux which are agglomerations of preserved body parts and skeletons on P.86, and a human horn on P.109. Most of the photographs are quite interesting to look at.

This book can be strange and bewildering at times. At other times it can be surreal and fascinating. If you like trivia, unexplained phenomena, or are interested in odd things this book is a recommended read. Also if you are interested in the morbid, grotesque, or different and like things like circuses, freak shows, or extraordinary human behavior you would like this book as well.

One could call this book a nonfiction work of magical realism in the tradition of Borges or a surrealist manifesto.

This book was one of Nancy Pearl's recommended reads.


Cowgirl Betty said...

This book reminds me of going to the Mutter Museum in Philidelphia--although those curiosities are actual anomalies of the human body.

Book Calendar said...

The Mutter Museum is listed as a sympathetic organization on the MJT website. I have never actually been there.