Rachel Portenstein in Garden of Eden On Wheels / Photo by Ryan Schude
On November 3, 1953, as Soviet scientists pulled the leather straps tightly around her body, slipped her legs and tail into the body sheath, and affixed the clear plastic helmet and black breathing tubes to her muzzle, Laika could have never known that she was about to be sacrificed to space. Laika, a butterscotch brown mutt, was launched into orbit on Sputnik 2, as the first living creature to leave the Earth’s atmosphere.
Laika was brought to the English-speaking world in a 1953 article in the New York Times. “Moscow Radio last week announced that an animal-carrying satellite soon would be launched… The radio audience was introduced to a ‘small, shaggy dog named Kudryavka,’ which barked into the microphone.” A few days after, Laika—Kudryavka’s nickname, which translates to “barker”—was placed into a small spacecraft.
For Laika, it was to be a one-way flight. Soviet scientists said they poisoned her last ration of food so that she would simply fall asleep instead of starving. (It was later revealed that Laika probably did not live past the lift-off stage.) In 1998, Oleg Gazenko, the scientist who pulled the stray from the Moscow streets, reflected on his experience: “The more time passes, the more I’m sorry about it. We shouldn’t have done it. We did not learn enough from the mission to justify the death of the dog.”
Anitra Menning / Photo by Ryan Schude
In a darkened room at the Museum of Jurassic Technology, Laika’s portrait stands alone. Framed and oil-painted, it hangs in an exhibition room that toes the line between Victorian salon and Old West funeral parlor. Titled “Lives of Perfect Creatures: Dogs of the Soviet Space Program,” the exhibit displays 10 paintings as a tribute to the dogs used in prototypic space flight.
Housed in an unassuming building in the Los Angeles enclave of Culver City, the Museum of Jurassic Technology challenges the traditional museum. Instead of acting as a source of knowledge, the museum raises more questions than answers: Is it a repository for the obscure, the ephemeral and the unfathomable, encapsulated in a post-modern Victorian salon of the 21st century? Or is it an experiment in the paradoxical and the sublimely wondrous? Perhaps.
If you’re not looking, you may miss it. The strip-mall flotsam of Los Angeles urban sprawl—an In-N-Out Burger, Blockbuster Video and India Sweets & Spices—camouflages the anonymous facade of the museum. From the street, there is little evidence of the museum’s existence; people waiting for the bus turn their backs to the museum’s crimson-and-gold sign. There is nothing extraordinary about it. But inside, the exhibits are as mysterious as the museum’s name. Instead of dinosaur bones, the dark, byzantine halls of the museum display bizarre collections. Often referred to as a cabinet of curiosity, the museum lies somewhere between artistic and historical, narrative and interpretative, and the false and the real.
Around the corner from the gift shop, an automated slide show explains the history of museums. An anonymous voice—the same anonymous voice speaking from museum headsets around the world—calls Noah’s ark the first natural history museum, follows the lineage to the wunderkammers (wonder cabinets) of Renaissance Europe, and culminates with the stodgy institutions of today. The Museum of Jurassic Technology marries the details of established institutions—the placards, carefully lit displays, dioramas—with the mystique of P.T. Barnum’s collection of curios, or maybe a Coney Island freak show.
One room is dedicated to artifacts culled from Los Angeles mobile-home parks, where dioramas depict different trailers in small synthetic habitats. “Tell the Bees: Belief, Knowledge & Hypersymbolic Cognition” displays folk remedies from a prescience America committed to the transformative powers of mice on toast and sewing pins stuck into wooden cemetery gates. “The Eye of the Needle: The Unique World of Microminiatures of Hagop Sandaldjian” showcases nearly invisible sculptures—only visible by microscope—by the Egyptian ex-pat Sandaldjian.
On the second floor, just adjacent to Laika and her Soviet comrades, the 29-year-old Georgian ex-pat Nanuka Tchitchou sits in the tearoom with her ghostlike Windhound, Tula. Nana, as she likes to be called, serves tea from a 100-year-old samovar, a large coal-heated teapot. She uses only Georgian black tea, which she smuggles back from her home country. Nana and the tearoom complete an interpretive arc that starts with the space dogs and Borzoi Cabinet Theatre, which screens films of slow-motion Soviet rocket launches,and ends in a hot glass of tea with lemon. Nana says she does feel like a part of the museum, and that her tearoom is a place for introspection. “Here, tea always opens up a conversation,” she says.
Nana Tchitchou in the Tula Tea Room / Photo by Ryan Schude
The museum is held together by the vision and commitment of a group of artists who breathe their dreams and passions into the collection. “This is one of the only places in the world where you’re not told what to think,” Rachel Portenstein, the commemorative objects curator, says. She puts her hand into a small bowl of water, fishes out a piece of adhesive plastic, and adheres it to a ceramic bowl that will soon be placed into a kiln. She sits on a high stool, surrounded by various ceramics and eclectic ephemera that have collected on the shelves in the museum’s back rooms. Behind her is a plastic model of a Russian rocket; to her right a plaster skull. Whereas the interior of the museum is strictly controlled with theatrical lighting and thick curtains, the private backrooms reveal the parts that keep the museum alive.
Sometimes the museum’s founder, David Wilson, with his white hair and horn-rimmed glasses, will emerge from a storage room still painted green from its time as a coroner’s office. Wilson studied film at CalArts in the 1970s, and his mastery of lighting and optical illusion appear in the Athanasius Kircher exhibit, which displays the ideas of the 17th-century Jesuit thinker. Through a viewing apparatus, holograms appear inside each ornately constructed environment, revealing an image that was previously invisible.
“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”
- Charles Willson Peale
Like the Kircher exhibit, the museum began as collection of Wilson’s ideas. Founded in 1989, the museum grew as enthusiasts donated their collections and expertise to Wilson. In 1995, writer Lawrence Weschler wrote the book Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder, a Pulitzer Prize finalist, which brought the museum to the public’s attention. In 2001, Wilson won a MacArthur grant, more commonly known as a “genius grant.”
For those who tend to the museum, the answers still don’t come easy. Since she started at the museum in 2001, finance and development director Anitra Menning says that her view of the museum has changed. It is an ever-evolving piece of conceptual art, she says, and somewhere between Laika’s portrait, mice on toast, and even Nana and Tula in the tearoom, the museum forever orbits the outer edge of the ordinary, challenging the way we perceive the world. “Lately, I have been thinking about the motto of the museum,” she says. “It states, ‘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.’ Here you’re not forced, but you’re guided along. This has made me think a lot about the additive nature of learning and how learning is like a house of cards. To build the house of cards, you always have to find a card to lean against.”
By Drew Tewksbury / Photos by Ryan Schude
Published Swindle Magazine, Issue 19, Jan. 2009