The Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles, California, is an educational institution dedicated to advancement of knowledge and the public appreciation of the Lower Jurassic. Like a coat of two colors, the Museum serves dual functions. On the one hand, the Museum provides the academic community with a specialized repository of relics and artifacts from the Lower Jurassic, with the emphasis on those the demonstrate unusual or curious technological qualities. On the other hand, the Museum serves the general public by providing the visitor hands-on experience of “life and the Jurassic.”
The public museum as understood today is a collection of specimens and other objects of interest to the scholar, the man of science, and the more casual visitor as well, arranged and displayed in accordance with the scientific method.
In its original sense the term “museum” means a spot dedicated to the muses – “a place where man’s mind could attain a mood of aloofness about everyday affairs.” By far the most important museum of antiquity was a great institution at Alexandria founded by Ptolemy Philadelphus in the third century before Christ (an endeavor supported by the grant from the treasury). And no treatment of the museum would be complete without mention of Noah’s Ark, in which we find the most complete museum of natural history the world has ever seen.
The museum fell into dark oblivion, as did all institutions of learning with the coming of the Middle Ages. However, during these dark times to churches and monasteries, through collections of curiosities, allowed the spirit of the museum to burn through the age as the famed Hetruscan sepulchral lambs burned through to the ages without aid of air fuel in the dark of the tomb.
Relics and curiosities could be found in nearly every parish church no matter how small. In the ninth century, a hair from the beard of Noah was shown at the Abbey of Corbie. In the choir of the church of Ensisheim in Upper Alsace, there is a portion of a meteorite that fell to earth in 1492; and there were antediluvian bones at the church of St. Kilian at Heilbronn, in Württemberg. “In some church, two eggs of ostriches and other things of the like kind, which cause administration and which are rarely seen, are accustomed to be suspended, the by their means the people may be drawn and have their minds to be more affected.”
However, the true origins of today’s public museum of natural history can be traced only as far back as the 16th and 17th centuries. The period witnessed the spread of humanism; it was an era in which the objects of animated nature and the phenomena of the material world began to be regarded with scientific interest. Collections of natural objects became as common as collections of works of art, and often both such collection were housed in one repository. One of the earliest printed catalogues of a collection is that “of all the chiefest Rarities in the Publick Theatre and Anatomie-Hall of the University of Leyden,” which appears to have been published in 1591, but the date seems to be mistaken for 1691.
The early collections were primarily in the hands of wealthy individuals. According to Wittlin, these collections could be divided into four groups: economic hoard collection, social prestige collections, collections as an expression of group loyalty, and collection as means of emotional experience. Among the most celebrities of these collections in Europe was that of Jan Swammerdam, who boasted a talisman of lead covered with Arabic letters, which was used as an amulet by being placed in burning soda thus affording the possessor freedom “from all Danger of being assaulted by evil Manes of Spirits, which they believe are continually hovering the world watching Occasions to injure mankind.”
At the same time in England a number of illustrious collections were being formed. Many of these collections are well known and need only be mentioned here. Among these where the collection of Ole Worm, whose Museum Wormanium achieved great fame. Another collection of rarities was preserved at South Lambeth by Elias Ashmole. Mr. Ashmole, an archaeologist and antiquary, presented his collection to his friend and neighbor Samuel Dule (author of the Pharmacologia), to whom it was delivered one week before Mr. Dule’s death.
Through the second half of the 18th century and into the 19th century it became fashionable to donate these collections to budding public institutions. The first of these “public” museum were little more than formalized displays of private collection of rarities and curios, often arranged with little regard for any meaningful order of display. These institutions, though public in name, were accessible in fact only to cognoscenti and then only by appointment, in small groups, and for limited periods of time.
However, at the same time, in the city of Philadelphia in America, Charles Willson Peale was forming a museum that was to become a model for the institution for years to come. Mr. Peale’s museum was open to all people (including children and fair sex) and was philosophically grounded in the thoughts of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Peale fervently believed that teaching is the suplime ministry inseparable from human happiness, and that the learner must be led always from familiar objects toward the unfamiliar; guided along, as it were, a chain of flowers into the mysteries of life.
“Rational amusement” was the Peale Museum’s instrument but also, by curious irony, it’s eventual undoing. Imitators sprang up at once. A collection of oddities unencumbered by scientific purpose was found to be “good business”. Tawdry and specious museums soon appeared in almost every American city and town. This unsavory tendency finally reached its peak with P.T. Barnum, who in the end obtained, scattered and ultimately incinerated the Peale collections.
The Museum of Jurassic Technology traces its origin to the period when many of the important collections of today were beginning to take form. Many exhibits that we view today as part is the Museum were, in fact, formerly part of other less well known collections and were subsequently consolidated into the single collection we have come to know as The Museum of Jurassic Technology, which thus configured has received great public acclaim as well as much discussion in scholastic circles.
The Museum, however, not content to rest on the laurels, kept pace with the changes in sensibility over the years. Except for the periods of the great wars in the previous century (when twice portions of the collection were nearly lost) the Museum engaged in a program of controlled expansion.
Walking to the Museum, to visitor experience, as it were, a walk back in time. The first exhibits encountered are the contemporary displays, and reaching the far end of the Museum the visitor is surrounded by there earlier exhibits.
Altough the path has not always been smooth, over the years The Museum of Jurassic Technology has adapted and evolved until today it stands in a unique position among the institutions in this country. Still, even today the Museum preserves something of the flavor of its roots in the early days of the natural history museum – a flavor that has been described as an “incongruity born of the overzealous spirit in the face of unfathomablle phenomena.
“Glory to Him, who endureth forever, and in whose hands are the keys of unlimited Pardon and unending Punishment.
The Museum of Jurassic Technology