The Land Ark of Los Angeles
January 9, 2012 | by Lizzie Wade
The Museum of Jurassic Technology in Culver City, California, is filled with objects that disorient as much as they delight. There’s the Deprong Mori, a bat that emits X-rays instead of sound waves and is thereby able to fly through solid objects. There’s the yelping, taxidermied head of the American gray fox, whose voice, upon further inspection, emanates from a small projection of a howling man that hovers over the fox’s unblinking eyeball. There’s a group of microscopes set up to display tiny images of vases and flowers composed of the scales from butterfly wings and a labyrinth of models depicting various superstitions and other pieces of folk wisdom, ranging from the curative properties of mouse pie to the importance of shrouding mirrors during thunderstorms. If you manage to locate the staircase to the second floor, you will be invited to take tea and contemplate detailed oil portraits of five of the Soviet space dogs.
While the Museum of Jurassic Technology, or MJT, might be described as a natural history museum, there is no cataloging to be done here, and no positivist truth about our world to be revealed. Whether or not the phenomena on display are, shall we say, verifiable is an open question. But the museum is far from a simple puzzle where truth can or should be cleanly separated from fiction. As Lawrence Weschler writes in his book-length study of the museum, Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder, “The visitor to the Museum of Jurassic Technology continually finds himself shimmering between wondering at (the marvels of nature) and wondering whether (any of this could possibly be true).”
The MJT asks us to consider what, exactly, makes a museum a museum. This is probably no better illustrated than in its permanent exhibition, Garden of Eden on Wheels: Selected Collections from Los Angeles Area Mobile Homes and Trailer Parks, which takes the idea of the personal collection—the first step towards a museum, after all, and the basis for several of the world’s most renowned institutions—and turns it inside out by simply presenting it for exactly what it is: a group of objects that one person, for whatever reason, decided to treasure. As the MJT’s founder David Wilson explains of the exhibit, “We didn’t want it to be like other larger institutions might, the collections of people of wealth and privilege. What we really wanted to do was the collections of just regular people.” So he put out a call to the hundreds of mobile home parks in the Los Angeles area asking for personal collections to display.
The four collections that make up the exhibit are housed in illuminated vitrines that call to mind the displays of geological gems in more traditional institutions. The Cole Collection of crocheted lace, the Elliott Collection of porcelain, the Schroer Collection of oddly shaped bottles, and the unnamed collection of pincushions are displayed with such reverence that the objects take on an air of the uncanny. What would in lesser hands be a sly wink aimed at exposing the silliness of venerating a stranger’s possessions becomes, in “Garden of Eden on Wheels,” a sincere tribute to the act of collecting under social, economic, and existential duress.
It’s no coincidence that the MJT would eventually turn its focus to trailers, as the exhibition’s catalogue traces the mobile home and the natural-history museum to a common ancestor: Noah’s ark. Today’s mobile homes, or “land arks,” which were first popularized for year-round living in the U.S. during the Great Depression, are still, Wilson says, “a device with which to be able to deal with emergency, or, like, unusual social conditions. If things get bad, you just hook your car up and you drive your whole home away. It’s a sense of mobility, but it’s mobility inspired by potential disquiet. Which is just like the ark.”
Disquiet lurks along the perimeter of the “Garden of Eden of Wheels,” where dioramas of mobile homes in unusual situations are recessed into the walls. All are based on scenes that Wilson saw while visiting collectors in their homes as he researched the exhibit. A miniature version of a shabby, teardrop-shaped trailer is nestled under a freeway overpass in one, while in another the home is parked in a drive-in movie theater. The unsettling contradiction in the term mobile home is illustrated by a diorama in which the ground under a harshly metallic trailer falls away, exposing the roots of a nearby tree spreading underneath.
Over the years, the miniature trailers inside the museum have found companions in the collection of full-size mobile homes out back. Wilson first became enchanted with trailers in the early 1970s, but he didn’t consider living in one until after the completion of “Garden of Eden on Wheels” in 1996, when he ended his career in the film industry to devote himself full time to the museum. His family was living in Silver Lake, and the daily commute from the East Side to the West Side of Los Angeles’s sprawl became unbearable. As money became tight, he says, “we just kind of closed the door and left the house.” After experimenting with small apartments and even sleeping on the floor of the museum (which, it must be said, is one of the creepiest places I can imagine spending the night), he and his family decided to buy their own trailer, a 1951 Spartanette.
Almost twenty years and one Macarthur Fellowship later, Wilson still lives in it. “I’ve never lived in a place I liked better,” he told me. “I love the kind of containedness of it.” Inside, a working area with a large desk gives way to a corridor, which houses the minimal, microwave-centric kitchen and ends in a bedroom at the back. The sleeping area, thanks to its sloping ceiling, is especially womblike, while the window in the bathroom lets in so much natural light that it has the feeling of an outdoor shower. The surfaces are cluttered with Russian Orthodox icons and a few lovely dulcimer-like instruments called santoors, while a pair of finches chirps in the cage beside the door, enjoying the ocean breeze that comes through the windows.
There are now a total of five trailers on and around the MJT’s property; in addition to Wilson’s Spartanette, there’s a Spartan Royal Mansion, two Boles Areos, and an Airstream, all used by the museum or affiliates. All of the trailers are from the mid-twentieth century, when aircraft companies like Spartan confronted a dwindling demand for fighter bombers after World War II and switched to making mobile homes for returning soldiers and, among other markets, the Atomic Energy Commission developments springing up in remote sections of the country in the wake of the Manhattan Project.
Unlike the commonly homemade trailers of the twenties and thirties, these mid-century mobile homes share a faded futuristic sheen. The Spartans and Boles Aeros resemble early submarines in their unapologetic unnaturalness; the Airstream, which is built without any right angles, showcases the wonders of plastic. These were machine-age homes that could be built in a day, and they may be the twentieth century’s only successful experiment with prefabricated housing. Wilson relishes the history of his trailer as much as he does its aesthetic. He wryly observed that at the time his home was manufactured, Spartan Aircraft Company was owned by Los Angeles’s most famous collector, J. Paul Getty, whose personal collection now resides in a huge, immaculately constructed museum on a hill not far from the MJT. As Wilson remarked to me, “There’s some wonderful kind of irony in living in this trailer that J. Paul Getty made.”
Lizzie Wade is a science and culture writer living in Los Angeles.