Mr. Wilson’s Ways of Knowing

Photo Credit: Sarah Bennett

I now confess that I am one of the readers who didn’t get into Lawrence Wreschler’s Mr. Wilson Cabinet of Wonder. And up until the moment I met the real Mr. Wilson at his Museum of Jurassic Technology (MJT) in Los Angeles, I wondered why I was not enjoying a book that had won among many other awards the National Critic Circle Award for Non Fiction and finalist for the Pulizer Prize. While reading I tried hard to appreciate Wreschler’s writing style yet I couldn’t really get a sense of the Museum nor the man who created it. Wreschler’s insatiable search for answers, the many phone calls and interviews he made in search for truth, and his use of graphics and drawing throughout the book’s 193 pages made me dizzy. While reading I was trying to grab so tight to Wrestler’s vocabulary that I felt I was riding the Cony Island Cyclone Roller Coaster. When I got off the ride, I concluded that my resistance to this book might had to do my own limitations.

The day of the field trip to MTJ I wasn’t sure what to expect. Bus 33 was delayed that morning so I got to 9341 Venice Boulevard late, feeling rushed. Desperately looking for the main door, I discovered the Roman fountain that decorates the Museum’s façade. Right in that instant, I got the first signal that MJT was going to surprise me.

Once inside MJT seemed much smaller in scale. I walked from the small lobby and bookstore into the exhibits and I began to wander. Right away I sensed I was entering another world, filled with odd objects and magical representations that were opening me up. This museum was not about preserving history but about reinventing it. Suddenly I forgot that I had come to visit an institution. Instead MJT was introducing me to new ways of seeing reality, showing new ways of knowing and appreciating inventions.

In one room I learned about the importance of covering sheeted mirrors during lighting or thunderstorms, as I walked to the next corner I learned how to cure a dog bite, the room next door showed me how we can tell a person’s pride by looking at the curl that is created in their hair after pulling it between nail and thumb. In a gloomy light and listening to music that made me remember the Gregorian chants I rediscovered my curiosity. Looking through one on the final windows I was intrigued by the placement of a tiny bottle and an ancient toothbrush. As I read that urine had protective qualities I rediscovered my laughter.

Photo Credit: Sarah Bennett

The more I walked through the exhibits and turned its many corners, the more I felt like a child, opened to the wonder of discovering and surprised by the worlds I was entering. My senses got captured not just by sight but by sound, smell and touch.

Who was the man behind this vision? Not the one I met through Wrestler. What was his motivation? In this state of mind I discovered my favorite exhibition – Garden of Eden On Wheels, a selected Collection from Los Angeles Area Mobile Home and Trailer Parks. When I discovered the miniature trailers perfectly lit, I realized that Wilson was not just showing an object but creating an atmosphere. He was telling a very personal story by the way he was presenting the trailer park. The way Wilson had placed these mobile homes in nature and lit its landscape took me to a real place in my consciousness that I call home. For an instant I saw myself inside in that dim light, as I shed tears, I imagined I was eating with loved ones at that same trailer’s kitchen table.

Photo Credit: Yueru Zhang

An hour flew by, transported by all the mysterious artifacts, in a world driven by emotions. I knew I had had a direct experience with new ways of knowing. An opening.

The opportunity to meet Mr. Wilson had finally arrived. As I left the penumbra of those rooms and walked towards the light towards the attic in search for the garden, I got my first glimpse of my Mr. Wilson. His grey hair matched Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder’s description but not his height. There was nothing small about this man. As he grabbed the tea and cookies that his staff had prepared for our gathering I could sense his love for his creation, his collaborative spirit and his humility.

After a conversation with the real man, I gained understanding about why I hadn’t connected to Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder. Wrestler had come to MJT in search for answers and looked through this world through the lens of factuality. Mr. Wilson, on the contrary, lives in a different world where not naming and wonder live connected. He likes when boundaries blur, has come to terms with having felt confused most of his life and values the multiplicity in the ways of knowing.

– Gemma Cubero


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