GUEST INTERVIEW : TAVI GEVINSON WITH DAVID HILDEBRAND WILSON
The Museum of Jurassic Technology looks like a humble little storefront on a street in Culver City, California. Upon entering, however, you find yourself in a maze of oddities — a row of microscopes on mosaics made of butterfly-wing scales, a hall of flower X-rays, tiny sculptures displayed literally in the eyes of needles (the sculptor timed his carvings by his heartbeat). At first it feels like being transported to another world, until you see what a loving representation it is of the wonders of our own. You might suspect some of the displays are made-up, or that footnotes, names, and the plaques and pamphlets sitting in the gift shop are fictionalized, until you come to love the ways in which the museum inspires that very act of questioning. Lawrence Weschler wrote in his 1995 book about this place, “It’s that very shimmer, the capacity for such delicious confusion, Wilson sometimes seems to suggest, that may constitute the most blessedly wonderful thing about being human.”
If you are among our devoted readership then you know that Tavi Gevinson of Rookie Magazine is a friend and collaborator. Here, she guest interviews David Hildebrand Wilson, the founder of the MoJT, in honor of her stint at Ace Portland during PDX Fashion Week and our upcoming annual Content installations November 9 on the second floor. Tavi will be in town on a book tour to promote Rookie’s second publication, Rookie Yearbook Two, with Reading Frenzy at the Q Center November 8. Read on, get misty-eyed, and remember to leave your house this week for both of these events.
How would you explain or describe the museum to someone who’s never heard of it?
I think typically what we say is that we’re a small museum of natural history, history of science, history of art, and then everything else that comes along. We’re inspired by older museums — 200, 300 years ago, a museum wasn’t a museum of a particular thing, it was a museum of everything. We don’t think all museums should be that, but we think there’s a place for that kind of museum, kind of an encyclopedic museum.
Would you say then that there’s anything in particular that unifies everything you have on display?
There are definitely underlying, unifying principles to what we do, but sometimes they’re kind of hard to discern, or hard to define. We have a motto, which you actually almost never see in the museum, but it’s “Un translatio nature,” which means “nature as metaphor.” That doesn’t really sum things up so much, but it actually is meaningful to us, because the kinds of things we like to put in the museum tend to be either natural phenomena or man-made — which, you know, there’s no real distinction between what’s man-made and what’s natural, because humankind is pretty natural as far as I can tell. We find ourselves gravitating toward material and phenomena that have meaning in and of themselves, and that also suggest other levels of meaning — kind of radiating spheres of meaning.
It’s interesting what you said about the line between man-made and the natural world being sort of blurry. To many people — and I always kind of thought this until I went to your museum — science and art are mutually exclusive. Some say it’s science’s job to tell humans that we’re not important and art’s job to declare that we are. How do you make them work together?
Essentially it goes back to a 17th-century or even earlier designation of artificialia and naturalia — what is artificial and what’s natural. It’s kind of an act of hubris or pride, I think, that things that are made by humankind are in some way out of the natural order. We’re certainly, absolutely, profoundly part of the great glittering chain of being. I mean, look at birds’ nests — are they artificilia or are they naturalia? A bird makes this gorgeous nest, and that’s considered a natural artifact — so why is that different for humans?