How Does a Museum Become a Performance?

An experimental artist transports viewers to an institution of curious relics and artifacts.

It is dark in the Museum of Jurassic Technology. It is always dark here. Visitors are tiptoeing through, puzzled and giddy, pointing out improbable facts (or very serious fictions) to each other. A bat that flies through lead. A human horn, recorded in 1688, on the head of one Mary Davis from Saughall, England. A scientific discourse on the workings of memory.

Today there is a scrum of people at the entryway, but after a few twists and turns I find myself suddenly alone in a dim room with a madly chiming wheel of tiny bells, surrounded by painted tableaux of religious scenes. It’s an eerie sensation, being cut adrift in a world of someone else’s imagining. San Francisco-based sound artist Pamela Z deftly reflects that uneasiness in Wunderkabinet, an experimental opera piece that recreates some of this unconventional Los Angeles museum on stage.

It’s the day after I attended Pamela Z’s performance of Wunderkabinet at the <a href="http://
” target=”_blank”>RedCat Theatre, California Institute of the Arts’ pioneering downtown performance space, and I woke up thinking about the physical museum. First opened in 1989, it is a labyrinthine collection of galleries that feels like a natural history museum assembled by Edward Gorey, housed in a well-mannered stucco rectangle on a busy commercial strip in Culver City. I wonder if my experience of the museum itself, a place that I have visited several times since creator David Wilson spruced it up with his 2001 MacArthur grant, will be changed now that I’ve seen Pamela Z’s staged interpretation of it. Of course, it’s not the same as seeing the Guggenheim rendered in interpretive dance or a musical that brings the British National Portrait Gallery to life. The MJT already is a sort of performance, an installation in the form of a wunderkammer, the 17th-century forerunner of our modern museum where man-made things, natural wonders, and historical curiosities are displayed together. But while those aimed at authenticity despite the spectacle, this happily blurs the lines between real and unreal.

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The Museum of Jurassic Technology has inspired other tributes – in 1995 New Yorker staffer Lawrence Weschler wrote Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonders, which spent much of its 192 pages trying to determine what is real and what is imagined in the museum’s exhibits. Pamela Z draws on the JT’s deadpan captions for her libretto and assumes the character of Alice May Williams, one of the museum’s subjects, who writes to the astronomers at the Mt. Wilson Observatory about the cosmos, claiming that “no one may ever have the same knowledge again,” a phrase that also serves as a title for the museum’s exhibit of letters to the observatory. Pamela Z as Alice May sails to America from New Zealand as a stowaway in search of the observatory, but finds herself instead in the Museum of Jurassic Technology, where she lives among the exhibits and eventually becomes a sort of docent at the institution. The artist tells Alice May’s imagined story in lush, haunting elodies, composed with Mathew Brubeck, that are layered over Christine McPhee’s video work and backed by a lone cellist.

On stage, the museum is represented by a few pieces of arcane looking machinery that become instruments in Pamela Z’s hands. At times, scenes are staged so that she almost becomes an exhibit. On the voyage to America she huddles in a lit box that represents the ship’s hold but also feels like one of the MJT’s diorama-like displays; later, as another character, she appears in the eye of a giant, wall-sized needle, becoming an enormous version of microminiaturist Hagop Sandaldjian’s tiny sculpture Pope John Paul II displayed in the eye of a common needle.

Both the performance and the institution ask its audience to question the role of the museum. Is it more than the sum of its exhibits? Does their veracity matter? Visiting the Museum of Jurassic Technology after watching Alice May immerse herself in the museum’s stories and theories is like being invited to wander onstage mid-show. The audience, I realize, is a part of the performance at this museum, and perhaps at any museum. The aim of both place and performance is to inspire wonder in that audience; our emotion is the final product. Standing in the darkened hall, the idea that these things could exist is suddenly enough – their reality is immaterial.

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