I recently visited The Museum of Jurassic Technology with a friend. While walking through one of its newer exhibits, we overheard a group of people quietly speaking about the various objects and stories on display in the vitrines. The two, art students presumably, were having a good laugh about the larger concepts of the museum and how it toys with truth in its exhibits. For those who have not read Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder, or who have never heard of the museum before– spoiler alert: things are not as they seem in the halls of the MJT. The real catch that the MJT draws out through its presentation however, is that neither are the exhibits at any other museum you may visit!
Museums, in order to “learn-learn-you-up” on anything, are critically dependent on a grammatical relationship between you and the object you are looking at. One of the fancy concepts for this relationship in museum studies is “object epistemology.” In its most basic formulation within the museum studies field, object epistemology posits that the object you are looking at is supposed to present some form of knowledge about itself to you as the person looking at it. A lot of work goes into building this within the narrative of museum spaces. Take, for example, all of those little bits of flavor text and labels sprinkled throughout the exhibit space for your reading pleasure (or for your complete dismissal, depending on the type of audience member you are)– those contribute to object epistemology. Even more so, the social contexts outside the museum walls also contribute greatly to what you are supposed to know/learn from the museum.
In any case, the goal, in virtually all museums, is to set up a sense of connotation between an object, and what it has to say about itself to you. In some circumstances, especially in the case of more mythologically aggressive national museums, connotation can even turn into denotation for the purposes of foreclosing on what an object means. The larger picture of museum “stagecraft” then, entails a form of knowledge production that situates objects as speaking for themselves, when in fact, objects are just things that have stories made around them in order to situate them into the larger organization of the exhibit and society at large. It is this object epistemology that the MJT gleefully problematizes.
In Plato’s The Republic, there is a famous passage where Plato proposes the banishing of all the arts from his idealized city. His reasoning for this is that all works of art are simulations of nature– which for Plato means they possess the risky ability to deceive their spectators. This relates back to Platonic metaphysics (remember the allegory of the cave) where you, as a person, do not have access to material things; you only have access to their shadowy qualities. Art, as simulacra, is therefore a second order (at the very least) representation of the Platonic “forms.” This means, in a sense, that art– in being unable to accurately present nature– for Plato, always lies about the world at least twice.
According to Plato’s aesthetics, the best work of art is the one which is as true as possible to nature (re: the aesthetic concept of verisimilitude.) Lacan gives the now famous two examples of the (1) painting of a vine of grapes, which deceives birds into pecking at it in vain, and the (2) example of a painting of a veiled painting which deceives the viewer into thinking there is yet another painting underneath it. For Plato, the painting of the grapes is a good simulation; equally the painting of the veil, because of its subterfuge, is a bad simulation.
In the realm of museum studies, this application of “good” and “bad” simulations is subservient to the hermeneutics of the museum proper, as it is itself in service to whatever narrative it seeks to present. There are many questions that the MJT asks, but one of the more interesting one is: what roles do simulations play in the processes of knowledge production? In other words, the MJT doesn’t forward a problem of “good” or “bad” qualitative judgements about its exhibits– instead it poses the problem of hyperrealism for all of museology as it relates to the teleology of museum history and all of its affiliated practices (anthropology, art history, museum history etc., etc.)
The phrase which caught my ear, while walking through the MJT, was “It’s crazy right?! It’s all fake!” Absolutely not. The problem is that, in point of fact, everything at The Museum of Jurassic Technology is not fake. Least fake of all are the hermeneutic process that the MJT employs in order to disseminate its information to its visitors. Rather, in a sense, The Museum of Jurassic Technology is an exercise and a microcosm of all museology from the 17th century onwards.