Everything else

The World Is Bound With Secret Knots

An interview with David Hildebrand Wilson.

Illustration by Minna

The Museum of Jurassic Technology looks like a humble little storefront on a street in Culver City, California. Upon entering, however, you find yourself in a maze of oddities—a row of microscopes on mosaics made of butterfly-wing scales, a hall of flower X-rays, tiny sculptures displayed literally in the eyes of needles (the sculptor timed his carvings by his heartbeat). At first it feels like being transported to another world, until you see what a loving representation it is of the wonders of our own. You might suspect some of the displays are made-up, or that footnotes, names, and the plaques and pamphlets sitting in the gift shop are fictionalized, until you come to love the ways in which the museum inspires that very act of questioning. Lawrence Weschler wrote in his 1995 book about this place, “It’s that very shimmer, the capacity for such delicious confusion, Wilson sometimes seems to suggest, that may constitute the most blessedly wonderful thing about being human.”

Wilson is David Hildebrand Wilson, who founded the museum in the late 1980s. Since then he’s lived with his wife and daughter in an adjoining trailer, and run the museum with the help of volunteers, visitor donations, and grants. I noticed while we were speaking that he would make these grandiose statements about life and humanity, but they were always prefaced with “I think.” Or he would describe something, and find a better word for what he’s trying to say two or three times, and list them all. You could hear his brain working. It brought back the sense of affection for uncertainty that I felt when I visited his museum in the summer, the same feeling I found when I read Weschler’s book in the fall, and the same one I was overwhelmed with by the time we finished this interview. I might have burst into tears once we hung up? I DUNNO, YOU MAY JUST HAVE TO ~WONDER~. Read on, curious one.

TAVI: Thank you so much for doing this.

DAVID WILSON: Oh yeah, sure, I’m honored. Rookie looks great. How long have you been doing that?

Thank you so much. I started it September of 2011.

Can you tell what the viewership is?

I can, but I don’t. I think if I look at the numbers it messes with my head.

It’s funny—I’m the same way. If people write things about the museum I never read ’em. I’d rather not see it somehow.

I was reading an interview with Stephen Colbert yesterday, and he said reading about yourself is poison—even if it’s positive attention, it just brings you outside of your head.

Oh yeah, it’s easily as bad if it’s positive as it is when it’s negative. It’s better to just avoid what you’re doing and do it without a lot of external input. It can throw you off course.

How would you explain or describe the museum to someone who’s never heard of it?

I think typically what we say is that we’re a small museum of natural history, history of science, history of art, and then everything else that comes along. We’re inspired by older museums—200, 300 years ago, a museum wasn’t a museum of a particular thing, it was a museum of everything. We don’t think all museums should be that, but we think there’s a place for that kind of museum, kind of an encyclopedic museum.

Would you say then that there’s anything in particular that unifies everything you have on display?

There are definitely underlying, unifying principles to what we do, but sometimes they’re kind of hard to discern, or hard to define. We have a motto, which you actually almost never see in the museum, but it’s “Un translatio nature,” which means “nature as metaphor.” That doesn’t really sum things up so much, but it actually is meaningful to us, because the kinds of things we like to put in the museum tend to be either natural phenomena or man-made—which, you know, there’s no real distinction between what’s man-made and what’s natural, because humankind is pretty natural as far as I can tell. We find ourselves gravitating toward material and phenomena that have meaning in and of themselves, and that also suggest other levels of meaning—kind of radiating spheres of meaning.

It’s interesting what you said about the line between man-made and the natural world being sort of blurry. To many people—and I always kind of thought this until I went to your museum—science and art are mutually exclusive. Some say it’s science’s job to tell humans that we’re not important and art’s job to declare that we are. How do you make them work together?

Essentially it goes back to a 17th-century or even earlier designation of artificialia and naturalia—what is artificial and what’s natural. It’s kind of an act of hubris or pride, I think, that things that are made by humankind are in some way out of the natural order. We’re certainly, absolutely, profoundly part of the great glittering chain of being. I mean, look at birds’ nests—are they artificilia or are they naturalia? A bird makes this gorgeous nest, and that’s considered a natural artifact—so why is that different for humans?

I read that you had this sort of epiphany in your late teens…

There was a moment when I was probably just turning 19—and it was through nothing I did, there just kind of came to me an opening of my mind and my understanding. It was inexplicable, but it gave a level of meaning to my understanding of life that I had never had previously. That experience lasted over a period of days. Towards the end of it, I became afraid that…I was just very concerned to not lose the understanding that came as part of that experience. And really, that moment has had a profound effect on how I spent the rest of my life and spent the whole of my life’s energy.

Do you feel like you’ve done justice to that realization?

I don’t know that you can ever do justice, but I think I’ve spent the rest of my life kind of dancing around those understandings, because those understandings are really…I don’t know how to describe it other than a sense of…meaning. That kind of understanding that things were exactly as they should be, and that there was infinite and intricate meaning in the order of things. It’s really utterly incomprehensible. That doesn’t really help. I don’t know how else to describe it.

I think that in itself says enough, the fact that it is indescribable. What were you like as a teenager? What were the biggest influences for you at that time?

After that [epiphany], there was a certain change in my external demeanor. Prior to that, I was somewhat introverted, but I still had a pretty active social life. But after that experience I became more introverted and spent a great deal more time reading and trying to delve into areas of human activity or natural phenomena that reflected the kind of understanding that had come to me. I began to read Eastern philosophy—and this was not too easy to find at the time, in 1965; the culture has changed enormously since then. I [also] became interested in medieval times. I felt that… [Tavi’s dog won’t stop barking] Who is your dog?

I know, I’ve been quietly typing all-caps emails to my dad asking if he can let her in—

[Laughs] No, it’s nice!

It’s driving me crazy! I’m upstairs and she’s right outside by my window, and I’ve been trying to quietly ask my dad—

You don’t have to quietly do anything! You can go tell him if you want to!

I think I will if you don’t mind; really quickly I’ll go let the dog in!

Take your time!

Page

1 2 3

31 Comments

  • jenaimarley November 22nd, 2012 3:19 PM

    Gurdjieff!!!!!

  • noqa November 22nd, 2012 3:37 PM

    This i beautiful.

  • cascadia November 22nd, 2012 3:57 PM

    this is exactly what i need right now, thank you

  • Ben November 22nd, 2012 4:17 PM

    yeah it’s weird how people separate nature from artificial because man-made things are created with matter from nature we are not creating things from nothing and we are animals and animals are nature so it being made by us doesn’t really make it un-natural. this is a really beautiful piece thank you.

  • karastarr32 November 22nd, 2012 4:47 PM

    New hero.

  • cassiethetiger November 22nd, 2012 5:00 PM

    Oh, this was so interesting and intriguing, I’d never heard of him before.

    (And he sounds so lovely and so helpful and urrrrrgh as a wannabe journo he sounds like the perfect interviewee!)

    And I fall a little more in love with Tavi every time I read something she’s written.

  • kcreads November 22nd, 2012 5:28 PM

    “Everything in life comes down to, essentially, self and not self.” This piece was stunningly beautiful and truthful. Thanks, Tavi.

  • shelley November 22nd, 2012 5:53 PM

    This is so perfect.

  • litchick November 22nd, 2012 7:08 PM

    This interview is great- I found it intriguing as well as inspiring.

  • Anna F. November 22nd, 2012 7:23 PM

    “At first it feels like being transported to another world, until you see what a loving representation it is of the wonders of our own.” is a really lovely line and I haven’t even gotten to the interview yet.

  • vanessaishere November 22nd, 2012 9:18 PM

    this is such a wonderful interview… you have great questions, and Wilson’s answers are so inspiring and truthful. i’d really like to visit the museum.

  • Terra November 22nd, 2012 9:26 PM

    “We’re certainly, absolutely, profoundly part of the great glittering chain of being. I mean, look at birds’ nests—are they artificilia or are they naturalia? A bird makes this gorgeous nest, and that’s considered a natural artifact—so why is that different for humans?”

    This is perfect?

  • Ladymia69 November 22nd, 2012 9:27 PM

    Tavi, I found it very comforting to find out that you, as such an incredibly vital and prismatic person, has difficulty with encroaching pessimism and negativity. I think you deal with it beautifully. As a creative and sensitive girl who, at 33, is still trying to figure out how to live with this, it helps to see other women thriving despite it. Cheers.

    And thanks for a wonderfully thought-provoking interview. Keep up the outstanding work. I eat it up every day.

    • Tavi November 23rd, 2012 11:39 AM

      Yeah, it’s strange how little those feelings have to do with your actual circumstances, with reality, etc. Thanks for this comment!

  • tellyawhat November 22nd, 2012 9:35 PM

    I love the MJT. The perfect mix of wonder, joy and humor. What a sweet interview!

    Tavi– you should read The Stream of Life by Clarice Lispector.

  • caro nation November 22nd, 2012 11:15 PM

    Tavi, this is going to sound sort of….. condescending? which doesn’t make sense since I’m younger than you are, but you’ve become such a beautiful writer. You do a lot of stuff really well, but when I read something you’ve written, its like I can see and hear you saying it, like all the components of your public persona/oeuvre work in perfect harmony so the reader feels completely locked inside your mindset while reading. It’s kinda awesome. Like, watching you interview these brilliant, idiosyncratic people, you seem totally at home. You and your interviewees all have a vision that doesn’t come across in a succinct description but is so enthralling when it’s read/watched/heard/experienced. On your blog, the way you can catalog things; I use the phrase “aesthetically cataloging” to describe what I do to people now, it’s so perfect.

    Anyway.

  • baratully November 23rd, 2012 2:20 AM

    “[Do you ever feel like ... there is a shortage of things worth marveling at?] Completely the opposite. I have never even had that thought. That thought has never formulated in my mind.”
    new hero! i think it’s ridiculous when people AREN’T in awe of the universe. there’s just so much to be fascinated by and to learn about. our world is wondrous.

  • zhajean November 23rd, 2012 3:15 AM

    this is very insightful.

    oh I love Rookie :)

    czarina♥

  • Julia November 23rd, 2012 4:06 AM

    This guy is my new hero! It was so, so weird how much this spoke me. ♥

  • emine November 23rd, 2012 3:19 PM

    I FALL MORE IN LOVE WITH ROOKIE EVERY DAY, AND THE MORE I FALL IN LOVE WITH ROOKIE THE MORE I FALL IN LOVE WITH THE PEOPLE THAT ROOKIE INTRODUCES ME TO AND I JUST BECOME THIS BALL OF VIRTUAL LOVE SO THANK YOU

  • enthusiastictruckdriver November 23rd, 2012 4:02 PM

    Tavi, reading about your experiences as a teenager is probably the most comforting thing ever. I mean, a huge part of the crappy side of teenagerhood is that feeling of isolation you described—of course, I’m aware that I’m not the only teenager in the world who feels these things, but It’s hard to remember that when I’m caught up in all these confusing and strange feelings that I didn’t even know existed. And then suddenly I read something you wrote, and it sounds like something I’m currently experiencing, and it feels like I’m not entirely alone in this. I don’t mean this in a “Celebrities take out their trash too!” kind of way, but it’s so wonderful to realize that—apart from being inspired by your successes and joys—I can also find solace in the documentation of your journey through teenagerhood. Thank you so much for this!

  • dandelions November 23rd, 2012 5:23 PM

    “… here just kind of came to me an opening of my mind and my understanding. It was inexplicable, but it gave a level of meaning to my understanding of life that I had never had previously.”

    This is beautiful, when I read this I felt so strange, so magical, I don’t know… those words are like that perfect moments you need to feel great, to understand that there is more over there, inside us..

  • boyfights November 24th, 2012 9:18 AM

    Never heard of this place before, it sounds incredible. Thank you again, Rookie!

    http://hannahandelise.blogspot.com

  • Kasey November 24th, 2012 5:05 PM

    I was walking through the subway when I was in NYC this week, and I saw this quote on the wall along the lines of “The unnatural — that too, is natural.” and it fit right into this piece. love it. (:

  • chloegrey November 25th, 2012 2:32 PM

    I’m so glad I now know of one more person in the world who has so much wisdom and magical thinking and everything i can’t even describe why this is like a kindred-spirit article to me…
    But I have always loved strange and ordinary objects and the ponders they make us ponder, and I REALLY want to visit this museum now, and maybe start a museum or take care of one someday. I love love love museums. And this sort of reminded me of P.T. Barnum’s American Museum from back in the day, and also of the Museum of Innocence – here’s a link if that works: http://www.nytimes.com/slideshow/2012/04/30/arts/design/20120430PAMUK.html?ref=orhanpamuk

  • chloegrey November 25th, 2012 2:34 PM

    oh and also – I really like how all these interviews are less like questions popping off one after the other, and more like a conversation. It sounds, Tavi, like you really want to learn about the interview-ee’s thoughts and life experience, etc., and I think that makes a huge difference!

  • Hedwig November 26th, 2012 9:26 AM

    awwwwwwwwww

  • cancercowboy November 26th, 2012 3:11 PM

    quite a philosophical conversation. he’s a smart man. ironically, for me these moments of sensing the continuum of being, the interconnectivity, interdependence, wholeness of it, are also the moments when the fragility of it all becomes (sometimes painfully) obvious.

  • amelia November 26th, 2012 6:40 PM

    This is my favorite museum in Los Angeles. Thank you for your gift to the world Mr David Hildebrand Wilson, sincerely. I go to your rooftop garden in my mind when I can’t sleep, and your microscopic butterfly scale paintings are the stuff my dreams are made from.

    Much Obliged, sir,
    and thank you Tavi for this fantastic interview

    http://www.brainsouplust.blogspot.com

  • Cutesycreator aka Monica January 26th, 2013 3:34 PM

    Everything here so perfect and amazing ♥ (and I really, really like that quote about even “unnatural” things being natural – I had never thought about things that way, and now I am enlightened, so yay!)