If you happen to have become engrossed in this year’s Read Across Lawrence selection for children, Marie Rutkoski’s The Cabinet of Wonders, or if you have been enjoying the wonders lately revealed in our own lobby and the Watkins Museum , then we’ve got a book for you. In Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder, a finalist for the 1995 Pulitzer Prize for general non fiction, author Lawrence Weschsler achieves the wondrous himself by managing to impart an infectious fascination with the marvelous and teach a crash course in the history of museums, all in a mere 168 pages about an obscure museum and its curious curator. The book profiles David Wilson and his quest to “reintegrate people to wonder” via the Museum of Jurassic Technology, which occupies an unassuming storefront in an out-of-the-way Los Angeles neighborhood, but promises access within to the rarest of objects: a specimen of an elusive bat species whose sonar allows it to fly through walls, sculptures so tiny they are displayed in the eyes of needles and must be viewed with microscopes, a horn extracted from the head of a human being.
Much of Weschler’s book recounts his struggle to understand the museum after stumbling in one afternoon and departing in a state of profound amusement and confusion. When attempts to authenticate exhibits devolve into a compulsive chase of his own fact checking tail, Weschler concedes a point Wilson’s museum seems to suggest, that the rational worldview of the 20th century erodes our capacity to experience the marvelous, one of the richest aspects of being human. Along the way, Wechsler provides a captivating history of museums, focusing on the “wonder cabinets” of Renaissance Europe, collections developed in a time when generalists displayed as many curiosities as they could obtain, and great works of art and nature were exhibited together.
But Weschler’s book is best when he allows David Wilson to tell his own story. Wilson describes a life-altering “mandate” he received as a young man in a sort of mystical experience, and although he hesitates to reveal many details, we are given to understand that the Museum of Jurassic Technology is an expression of this vision. Since Wilson quit his day job in the advertising industry to devote his life to running the museum on a shoestring budget, it has existed against all odds, rescued time and again by seemingly miraculous coincidences and windfalls. Wilson views his vocation as a service to provide, through the museum, “an environment in which people can change.” Weschler’s is one life changed by the museum, and the author offers a useful comparison in pointing out the sense of wonder experienced by Europeans of the Early Renaissance period as curiosities began arriving by the boatload from the newly “discovered” Americas, after which they were gathered into the legendary wonder cabinets of the era, where they would foster a new way to understand the world. – Dan Coleman, Collection Development