In October 2004, The Matthias K. Rath Museum of Destruction and Resurrection (MKRMDR) opened on the campus of Stanford University. I was its co-founder, co-curator and co-inhabitant. The museum was run out of a dorm room. It was dedicated modestly to the reanimation of ‘wonder’ in the universe. Despite spatial restrictions and three grossly unmade beds, the MKRMDR boasted sixty wondrous exhibits, including a ‘Celestial Chart Employed by Ancient Navigators in Micronesia’, ‘The Quilt Worn By Governor Dukakis in Berkeley College in the Year 1988, when He Squandered Forever the Democratic Nomination’ and ‘A Shaman’s Rug In Arrested Flight’. The MKRMDR achieved, in its short life-span, a spectacular level of success – which is to say it peaked briefly above the status of a collegiate prank, became a famous venue for boozy parties, and was dismantled as soon as I graduated.
The MKRMDR was named after Dr. Matthias Rath, a cardiologist best known for irate two-page ads in the New York Times chastizing George W. Bush for going to war with Iraq, in order, as he believed, to benefit the pharmaceutical industry. The ‘K’, which is not actually Rath’s middle initial, introduced a falsely formal note, and the MKRMDR hoped to do something similar – provide a falsely formal gloss for its agglomeration of random and banal objects. Together my roommates and I gave tours that took the visitor from the ‘Wall of Dictators’, plastered with posters of contemporary despots such as Kim Jong Il, to a closet full of books arranged according to S. Raganathan’s Colon Library System to a giant sign for Stanford’s main campus drive (stolen) and so on. We nearly always converged under the ‘Currency Wall’, where we’d appeal for donations.
Reactions to the MKRMDR were, on the whole, positive. We received a dozen visitors a day and the museum became a destination for first dates. The Stanford Daily enthused: ‘The museum, which could have been a perversely odd piece of performance art tomfoolery, is endlessly filled with intriguing connections.’ But an alumnus calling himself Aesop Forbes shot back an acid letter to the editor: ‘I personally could not tell what exhibits were fake and which were real,’ he wrote. ‘Why would the curators want to create this confusion and mock our very senses?’
Why indeed? Despite our pretensions to striking originality, my roommates and I were nothing if not derivative. We were tapping into the art-world zeitgeist of wonder – a zeitgeist characterized, in part, by a deliberate play of confusion. For different reasons, we had all come to read the same book: Lawrence Weschler’s Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonders: Pronged Ants, Horned Humans, Mice on Toast, and Other Marvels of Jurassic Technology, and we sought to recreate its subject, ‘The Museum of Jurassic Technology’ (MJT) in our dorm room.
Founded in 1996 by David Wilson on the West Side of Los Angeles, the MJT is not, as the name suggests, a repository of dinosaur fossils, but rather a collection of wondrous relics from the natural world preserved in an antiquarian setting. These include a bat trapped in a cube of solid lead, a miniature sculpture of Pope John Paul II that fits in the eye of a needle and a diorama explaining the Platonic conception of memory – among other curatorial feats of randomness. The collection is accoutred with all the trappings of museological practice: long-winded and footnoted descriptions; phone receivers that can be picked up to access stuffy sound bites; a pathetic gift shop. In the words of another curator, the MJT is ‘a museum, a critique of museums, and a celebration of museums – all rolled into one’.
In his account, Weschler marvels at the museum’s obsessively burnished details and also tries to tease the authentic from the apocryphal – only to find himself overcome by the very wonder he is trying to dissect. Even the most outlandish displays at the MJT tend to have a basis in fact. Weschler is initially convinced, for instance, that the African horned stink ant, a prominent display at the MJT, doesn’t exist. He’s wrong and right. The ant doesn’t exist – but another one almost exactly the same does, under a slightly different name. Weschler concludes that such elusiveness, however confounding, can reveal an essential truth. A visitor to the MJT, he writes, ‘continually finds himself shimmering between wondering-at (the marvels of nature) and wondering-whether (any of this could possibly be true). And it’s that very shimmer, the capacity of such delicious confusion, Wilson sometimes seems to suggest, that may constitute the most blessedly wonderful thing about being human’.
The MJT locates itself in a lineage of museums stretching back to the Wunderkammern, or cabinets of curiosities, that were prevalent in early modern Europe, and include the collections of Ole Worms in Copenhagen, Athanasius Kircher in Rome, Rudolf II of Bohemia and the Tradescant family, the last of which was one of the foundations for the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. Wunderkammern corralled the prodigies of the natural world with relics of exotic New World people and objects whose explanation lay in the world of myth – unicorn horns, for example. They were, in effect, proto-museums, and were still innocent of the rigorously empirical, encyclopedic and taxonomical approach that Enlightenment figures such as Denis Diderot and Carolus Linnaeus were to bring to the categorization of human knowledge.
But there’s an important difference between the MJT and these forebears. Neither the visitors nor curators of the Wunderkammern doubted the truth behind the exhibits. Unlike present-day consumers, they weren’t in the market for ironic fulfilment. When Weschler asks the director of the Getty Museum if the experience of the MJT might approach that of visitors to early Wunderkammern he demurs, saying, ‘deliciousness is a distinctly contemporary taste’.
Nowhere is this contemporary predilection more apparent than on a block of Valencia Street in San Francisco, where a triptych of curiosity shops have come to represent the commercial flowering of modern-day wonder. Paxton Gate, The Pirate Supply Store, and The Curiosity Shoppe borrow their sepia-toned interiors and ostentatious arrangements from the Wunderkammern. But if the Wunderkammern represented a kind of pre-science, the stores on Valencia Street exude nostalgia for a past innocence, while being teasingly ironic in their appropriation of it.
In the cramped, apothecary-like environs of Paxton Gate you can find bloody jars, a hive of drawers hoarding essentials such as ‘Raccoon Penis Bones’ and ‘Rosehead Clinch Nails’, and a procession of stuffed mice dressed as punk-rockers, popes and wizards. In the back is a sanctuary of stunted plants, which seems a random segue for a taxidermy store but makes complete sense when you parse the name ‘Paxton Gate’. Sir Joseph Paxton was a Victorian gardener who designed the Crystal Palace in 1851, and managed to nurture a Guyanese water lily in English weather by simulating Amazonian temperatures in an artificially warmed pool. He was a gardening renaissance man; Paxton Gate is a gardening renaissance store.
A nature motif is also apparent in both The Curiosity Shoppe, which features a rather scattershot collection of knick-knacks – mermaid-shaped bottle openers, crocheted jellyfish, handmade bricks – and The Pirate Supply Store, which offers childish thrills in the form of hooks, eye patches and other seafaring paraphernalia. At a time when scientific debate concerns phenomena too small (neutrinos, chromosomes), too big (stars, galaxies) or too nebulous (string theory) to be seen, these shops satisfy a desire to revel in the more beautiful and odd aspects of science – be they bones, fossils, birds, jellyfish or butterflies. Harking back to the Wunderkammern imbues this nature-fetish with a gloss of antiquarian humour and nostalgia.
As a student at Stanford and a resident of San Francisco, I scoured these stores constantly but could never bring myself to support them, because they exposed the derivative nature of the MKRMDR. In their very proliferation, the stores promoted a homogeneity I found suspect: they were like museums loaning out their objects one at a time till the entire world became one large cabinet of curiosities. In their quirky interiors, originality seemed to be for sale. The stores’ chic shabby exteriors, meanwhile, were at one with the rapidly gentrifying environs of Valencia Street. It was a world that David Wilson, my idol, had sought to escape, living for several years with his wife in a cottage in the Colorado Mountains without electricity or running water before he founded the MJT. ‘We were desperately trying to avoid becoming yuppies,’ Wilson recalls in Weschler’s book, ‘which was already a distinct possibility’.
David Wilson came to be at the heart of our appropriation of wonder for the Matthias K. Rath Museum of Destruction and Resurrection. The true genius of Wilson’s MJT, after all, lies not in its bewildering randomness, but in the unsettling suspicion that its founder secretly believes in everything he displays and curates. Wilson is utterly deadpan. He never breaks character. He is a true purveyor of wonder because he seems wonder-struck himself.
Our mistake as curators of the MKRMDR was to affect a mask of wonder in order to generate a false sense of originality. We lied flagrantly about the provenance of our exhibits. The MKRMDR at times seemed like nothing more than a cult of our personalities and an opportunity to flaunt our Internet-fed facility for drawing together diverse threads of knowledge. Students made the trek across campus expecting to see a regular museum and instead found themselves being lectured on arcane topics in which they had little interest. Some had no inkling that the MKRMDR was an elaborate joke and offered us earnest congratulations on our efforts. Friends pointed out that the MKRMDR amounted to little more than intellectual bullying.
We were appalled by the charge, even though we knew its cause: nothing in the museum stood up to scrutiny. Take away the stories, and what did you have left? Flea-market souvenirs and a shabbily decorated dorm-room. Nor was it worth our effort to improve the exhibits. The museum would cease to exist once we graduated, and we were far more interested in finding a way to achieve collegiate immortality than we were in sustaining aesthetic brilliance. How could we make the museum bigger than ourselves? How could it possibly outlast our own graduation?
Then the answer struck us. Like the stores on Valencia Street, the MKRMDR should disseminate its contents as widely as possible. We decided to host a ‘destruction party’ and to ask people to decamp with exhibits – exhibits they could then put up in their own rooms the following year, a scattered and diffuse memorial to the MKRMDR. As it turned out, these instructions were completely disregarded. People showed up in unprecedented numbers – an entire year’s worth of museum visitors crammed into one evening – but did exactly the opposite of what we’d hoped. They destroyed everything, and took nothing.