Sunday, August 13, 2006

Kaolithic Curiosities at the Wonders of the World Museum

I don't recall exactly what drew me to Port Costa in the late 1970's. It's a tiny town in the outer reaches of the Bay Area, on the road to nowhere else, on a bank of the Sacramento River. Downtown consisted of some old buildings, a relatively large restaurant/bar popular with bikers, and a few antique store/curiosity shops. My attention, however, was immediately drawn to a storefront that housed the Wonders of the World Museum ("Stands Alone on Earth"), presided over by one Dr. George Gladstone.

Wonders indeed. There were many fascinating exhibits, many of which dated from the Pre-Credulous Era of the Bone Age, when fossils metamorphosed into ceramic instead of rock by a process known as Kaolism. Hominids in that age came in a huge variety of sizes. There was an 8-foot high Bigfoot with a triple-jointed penis bone, whose variety of functions Dr. Gladstone described in detail, and a numerous lilliputian race dubbed Homo Ceramicus. Two skulls of the latter were later acquired for the Zymoglyphic Museum's curiosity cabinet. Shown above is a rockpecker, whose skull could be used as stone-shaping tool. As a complement to the fossilization process of Kaolism, I learned how life can be created from mud, albeit with some unusual results.

The visit turned out to be good timing, because the museum was only in existence for a few years. It left a lasting impression on me, though, and when I finally had my own museum, I thought I would seek out the man behind Dr. Gladstone, Clayton Bailey. Three years ago, in July of 2003, I contacted Clayton via e-mail and he was gracious enough to give me a tour of his studio. He still lives in Port Costa, behind a fence topped by ceramic gargoyles of his own making. The big studio contains a large herd of robots, all of which are descended from a single robot originally designed to retrieve specimens for the museum from outer space. Instead, that first robot took over Clayton's brain and commanded him to create more robots. The Kaolithic Curiosities are now resting picturesquely in the yard (see above), maybe to be re-excavated and analyzed by a future generation.

Although seen by some as a "mad scientist", Dr. Gladstone's archaeological research methods have been an inspiration to the Zymoglyphic Museum curatorial staff.

Check out the Ceramic Wonders, especially the face jugs

More photos from 2003

Reference book: Clayton Bailey: Happenings in the circus of life


Sunday, July 23, 2006

A Fictocryptic Museum

The Museum of Jurassic Technology has recently been enmeshed in the Museum of Dust's acquisition spree (a fate which befell the Zymoglyphic Museum not so long ago), with the MoD director proclaiming the MJT to be the "grandparent of all modern fictocryptic establishments".

I had heard about this museum for many years and had seen some of its traveling exhibits. I finally was able to visit it in person when I went to Los Angeles last August. The museum is often referred to as a "curiosity cabinet", which is generally a haphazard collection of interesting stuff, but the MJT model is really more an instructive academic museum with professional-looking exhibits, each examining some esoteric phenomenon in great detail. In this museum, however, the phenomena described may or may not be fictional, and the way the line is straddled is subtle enough to keep you guessing even when you know what is going on. The book Mr. Wilson's Cabinet Of Wonder: Pronged Ants, Horned Humans, Mice on Toast, and Other Marvels of Jurassic Technology details one writer's attempt to cut through the fog of uncertainty surrounding the museum. It is, in a way, a highly rarefied version of a circus sideshow, where some of the freaks are real and some are not, but what really matters is the atmosphere created.

"Is this place real or what?"
"It's here, isn't it?"

--Conversation overheard at the MJT, October 2000, quoted in this article

To me, the fascination of the MJT is the pure physical presence of the place, its dark lighting, well-crafted vitrines, surreal dioramas, and labyrinthine exhibit rooms, including a theater and a tea room. The image above is from a Flickr photoset of the MJT by The Blen that gives you a good sense of what the museum is like. It's interesting to compare the MJT with Steven Millhauser's Barnum Museum which, being made entirely of words, is not subject to any physical laws.

While not truly an inspiration for the Zymoglyphic Museum, there has been some pollination wafting our way from the southland. The physical existence of the Zymoglyphic Museum is important, in that it exists in a geographic location and has real objects in it, but there is more of an emphasis on outreach through photography and web presence than on perfecting the physical exhibit space. The Lower Jurassic is much more technologically oriented than the Zymoglyphic culture, which tends toward rust and decay anyway. The Zymoglyphic Museum, like the MJT, has sometimes been accused of lax standards in the factual accuracy of its presentations (which it can neither confirm nor deny), and both may ultimately turn out to be physical manifestations of the internal worlds of their creators.

Labels: ,

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Skulduggery and Intrigue in the Museum World

The Zymoglyphic Museum has been targeted by the Museum of Dust for a hostile takeover. We recognize that due to staffing shortages the Zymoglyphic Museum's cleanliness may not be up to snuff (and noting that some staff believe that the accumulated dust enhances, rather than detracts from, the exhibits, by lending them a certain air of authenticity and credbility), and that the museum does indeed have a high concentration of desirable rust and decay, and further that the museum, as with all things, must eventually return to dust. Still, we had not expected it to come so soon. The museum's board is meeting even now to assess the threat.

The facts we have so far are these: The Museum of Dust's director goes by the highly suspicious name of Incognita Nom de Plume, or some variation thereof, and has an implausibly long personal history, involving an arachnoid accomplice (who sounds dangerous) and a mysterious entity called "Musrum" whose museum seems destined to suffer a fate similar to our own. We suspect this cabal may be associated with the equally shadowy Athanasius Kircher "Society", of which Kircher himself is the recording secretary and apparently its only member. Kircher had his own museum in Rome over 300 years ago (reduced to dust by now), and had not been heard from since then until he entered the modern age by becoming, like so many others, a blogger.

We will be sifting through the evidence for further clues.

-- Museum Staff

Labels: ,

Saturday, April 08, 2006

The new incarnation of the de Young Museum in San Francisco

We headed up to Golden Gate Park to visit the de Young Museum last weekend. It was the latest in a long series of wet days. We stopped off first at the hundred-year-old Japanese Tea Garden next door. The cherry trees were blooming, the moss was thick and glistening in the rain, and the raindrops made rings in the ponds. The garden is a sublime example of creating art from nature. As you walk the paths, each turn creates a new picture, a composition of mossy rocks, water, pagodas, and plants, even incorporating the surrounding cypresses and pines. In contrast, the de Young museum is a brand new building, a completely rebuilt version of the old museum on the same site. The approach is along an unnecessarily narrow sidewalk hunched up against the external wall of the museum, which is a featureless monolith with no protective eaves. At the door, you are forced to stand in line in the rain to go through a security check. Once you are in, you can take a stairway down to the special exhibit area with steps which are too wide for a single step and too narrow for two so that you have to sort of limp your way down.

According to the museum's history page, the de Young, founded in 1895, was originally a curiosity cabinet of sorts, housed in an Egyptian style edifice.
During the next twenty years [de Young's] taste for the curious, intricate, and ornamental was reflected by acquisitions of painting and sculpture, arms and armor, fine porcelain, objects from South Pacific and American Indian cultures, including original art objects as well as reproductions. Visitors to the museum seem to have shared de Young's interest in such diverse objects as sculptures, polished tree slabs, paintings, a door reputedly from Newgate Prison, birds' eggs, handcuffs and thumbscrews, as well as two cases de Young had at last filled with a collection of knives and forks.

This ended in the 1930's:
[Longtime museum director] Dr. Heil chose to tactfully refuse personal keepsakes and household bric-a-brac, ending any perception of the de Young as the city's attic.
Pity. The city could use an attic!

In the early 1960's, the de Young decided to "de-accession" some of its holdings that were not part of its more modern focus on art, antiquities, and ethnographic artifacts. My dad, then a biology teacher at City College, was there, and picked up these two taxidermied birds, which are now part of the Zymoglyphic Museum's collection, creating a nostalgic link with museum history.

The evolution of the de Young is not all negative, however. It has always had an excellent collection of African, Oceanic, and Pre-Columbian artifacts and has recently acquired a large private collection of artifacts from New Guinea. This collection was the highlight of the trip. Shown here are "spirit figures" from Papua, dated at a few hundred years old. The label says:
Imunu are unique spirit figures obtained from the root of the Mangrove tree. A carver or spirit man dreams of an image and the goes to "find it" in the forest. A similar tradition is found among certain Inuit people, where the shaman dreams an image and then seeks it out among the driftwood on the beach

The collection is nicely documented in the book New Guinea Art: Masterpieces of the Jolika Collection from Marcia And John Friede


Sunday, March 05, 2006

A Fantasy Museum Made Entirely of Words

While reminiscing about Ferdinand Cheval's "ideal palace" in the last entry, I was reminded of Steven Millhauser's story "The Barnum Museum", in the book by the same name. It is not so much a story as a 20-page description of a fantastic museum of the imagination. The scene is set:
The Barnum museum is located in the heart of our city, two blocks north of the financial district. The Romanesque and Gothic entranceways, the paired sphinxes and griffins, the gilded onion domes, the corbeled turrets and mansarded towers, the octagonal cupolas, the crestings and crenellations, all these compose an elusive design that seems calculated to lead the eye restlessly from point to point without permitting it to take in the whole. in fact the structure is so difficult to grasp that we cannot tell whether the Barnum Museum is a single complex building with numerous wings, annexes, additions, and extensions, or whether is it many buildings artfully connected by roofed walkways, stone bridges, flowering arbors, booth-lined arcades, colonnaded passageways.
He goes on to describe the rooms and the exhibits, the Hall of Mermaids, the three subterranean levels, the Chamber of False Things, and even rooms full of ordinary objects.
Even the gift shop is full of wonders:
Old sepia postcards of mermaids and sea dragons...mysterious rubber balls from Arabia that bounce once and remain suspended in the air...shiny red boxes that vanish in direct sunlight...Those who disapprove of the Barnum Museum do not spare the gift shops, which they say are dangerous. For they say it is here that the museum, which by its nature is contemptuous of our world, connects to that world by the act of buying and selling, and indeed insinuates itself into our lives by means of apparently innocent knickknacks carried off in the pockets of children.

Millhauser is one of my favorite writers, a wonderful blend of fantasy and literariness. His stories cover areas of interest to fans of the wondrous, such as automatons, illusionists, vast underground complexes, endless department stores, huge amusement parks, as well as vignettes of ordinary life.

In an interview, he says:
What interests me — not exclusively, but in relation to the monstrous — is the place where the familiar begins to turn strange. When things cease to be themselves, when they begin to turn into something else, which has no name — that is a region I'm always drawn to. This, I think, accounts for my interest in night scenes, in childhood, in bands of prowling adolescent girls, in underground and attic places, in obsession, in heightened states of awareness. In this sense, it might easily be argued that the wondrous and the monstrous are very much the same.

Labels: ,

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Recommended Museums

The ideal museum would be a comprehensive collection of dioramas, art, antiquities, natural history items, anthropological artifacts, medical preparations, mechanical wonders, and curiosities of all kinds, including items of questionable authenticity. These would all be piled floor to ceiling, room after room, wonder upon wonder. A new annotated museum guide has been added to the Zymoglyphic Museum Web site. It lists museums and similar institutions in Europe and on the American coasts where elements of this ideal museum may be found. Shown here is the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, England.

Readers are welcome to nominate other institutions for inclusion on this list.

-- The Museum Staff