Friday Reads: Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder

Today’s review: Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder: Pronged Ants, Horned Humans, Mice on Toast and other Marvels of Jurassic Technology, by Lawrence Weschler (1996, still available in paperback).

From the review (because they said it well and I’m too lazy to write my own summary): “In the non-Aristotelian, non-Euclidean, non-Newtonian space between the walls of the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles exist bats that can fly through lead barriers, spore-ingesting pronged ants, elaborate theories of memory, and a host of other off-kilter scientific oddities that challenge the traditional notions of truth and fiction. Lawrence Weschler’s book, expanded from an article for Harper’s, is, at turns, a tour of the museum, a profile of its founder and curator, David Wilson, and a meditation on the role of imagination and authority in all museums, in science and in life.”

Short review:  Highly recommended.  This was the most bizarre book I’ve read all year – almost impossible to characterize as anything but an awesome romp through a world of shiny dinglehoppers – and I loved every bit of it.

Available through (and probably in used bookstores – I picked mine up at the SPCA used book sale earlier in the year).  Longer review below the fold:

Longer Review:  I picked this book up because I had recently heard about the “cabinet of curiosities” phenomenon that swept Renaissance Europe (and continued into the 20th century, both in Europe and in the U.S.).  Also known as Kunstkammer or Kunstkabinett, the cabinet of curiosities was in essence a private collection of oddities belonging to an individual collector (or a family), in which the collector gathered various objects of interest, generally scientific in nature.  “Science” was interpreted rather broadly at the time, and the cabinets’ contents reflected this.

Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder chronicles the author’s experiences at the L.A. Museum of Jurassic Technology – essentially a 21st century survivor of the Kunstkammer movement which has become a permanent, public museum in Los Angeles.  It contains a variety of permanent and temporary exhibits on subjects ranging from “objects retrieved from the windpipes of choking victims” to “bats that fly through lead” and “horned ants” (also horned people, though just the horns…not the people themselves).

The book weaves the history of “cabinets of curiosities” (the term indicates a room or museum, not a literal cabinet) with the actual contents of the MJT and the story of its owner and founder – a character in himself (as one might expect, given his vocation).  Each object fascinates in its own way – usually only semi-related to the last object discussed – and although I couldn’t imagine at first how Weschler could possibly create a unified whole from such diverse subject matter, he manages beautifully.  Not that I would have cared if he hadn’t – the pictures alone are almost worth reading the book for.

It’s both difficult and easy to imagine what prompted people to create the cabinets in the first place – they are filled with amazingly bizarre collections of oddities, some less than tasteful to a 21st century sensibility but compelling even so.  People have wondered “why” as long as they have wondered anything, and the cabinets didn’t try to answer that question as much as to display the objects that made people ask it even more.  That said, it’s still almost impossible to look away, from the cabinet itself or from this book.

TL;DR: Compelling.  Unique.  Utterly bizarre – and highly recommended. Pick it up somewhere and read it if you can.