I'm taking a road trip to points of interest in Southern California! The trip is being underwritten by Buick LaCrosse, which has also kindly provided me with the use of a Buick LaCrosse to drive during the tour. My first stop was the Griffith Observatory, in the Hollywood Hills of Los Angeles. My second stop was to Coco's Variety in Silver Lake. The third leg of my trip took me to lowbrow art galleries in Los Angeles. This time I'm visiting the the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Culver City.
I visit the Museum of Jurassic Technology once every few years to convince myself that it exists and isn't just part of my dreams. It's on an otherwise uninteresting section of Venice Blvd in Culver City, but thanks to the large red sign resembling a scroll, and the gold letters spelling out the name of the museum, it's easy to spot.
The interior is dimly lit. The displays are illuminated from within or with pinpoint lighting, leading to an ambience that seems to diminish both ambient noise and the awareness that you are in a lackluster Los Angeles neighborhood. The feeling is one of being in the private library of an eccentric collector of artistic and scientific curiosities.
The central gallery houses the permanent collections, including an exhibit on the Cameroonian stink ant (Megaloponera foetens), which Lawrence Weschler described in his book about the museum's founder, David Wilson, called Mr. Wilson's Cabinet Of Wonder: Pronged Ants, Horned Humans, Mice on Toast, and Other Marvels of Jurassic Technology.
According to the museum, when a stink ant becomes infected by parasitic fungus called tomentella, the fungus takes control of the ant's nervous system, forcing it to climb high up a plant stem. The ant then freezes, and as it grips the stem with its jaws, the fruiting body of the fungus grows out of the ant's head. In a few weeks, the tip bursts, sending a cloud of virulent spores downward in search of new hosts.
The first time I visited the Museum of Jurassic Technology, I wasn't sure such a fungus really existed. After all, the name of the museum suggests that everything is a work of fiction -- nothing on display is from the Jurassic period, and there was no "technology" 150 million years ago.)
My doubts about the veracity of the fungus became even stronger when I saw another exhibit that had photos of noted weird phenomenon chronicler, Charles Fort, being identified as someone else. And when I saw the exhibit about the Deprong Mori -- a bat that uses x-ray vision to navigate, and flies so fast that the only time one has ever been captured was when one embedded itself into a thick slab of lead -- I was sure that everything at the museum must be a work of fiction.
In a state of doubt about everything I wondered whether the microminiature sculptures of the late Hagop Sandaldjian had been hand-built or made by a merry prankster at a microfabrication research laboratory. The museum claimed that Sandaldjian was an Egyptian-born concert violinist who had come to the United States and couldn't find work as a musician. As a result, he focused on making tiny sculptures out of hair, lint, and specks of dust, mounting them on the ends a needle or sometimes in the eyes of needles. On display at the museum are about 30 of his creations, including Donald Duck, Goofy, and Pope John Paul II, placed under microscopes so you can see them. The museum claims that Sandaldjian used diamond dust and jewel shards attached to sharpened needle tips to carve his figures, and used a single sharpened hair to paint them, waiting between his heart beats to apply the paint so that the pulse in his fingertips didn't ruin his work. People who watched Sandaldjian make his sculptures said that his fingers appeared to be motionless as he carved, glued, and painted, peering at his work through a 125X microscope.
Through the years, I've searched the web for information about the stink ant and tomentella, but I couldn't find anything about the fungus turning the ant into a zombie (other than the links pointing to the Museum of Jurassic Technology website). But then I stumbled across a video about a fungus called cordyceps that does exactly what the museum claimed. But the museum had changed the name of the fungus from cordyceps to tomentella, and stated that the stink ant was the host, when it's really the bullet ant (and other insects) that gets infected. Why would the museum do this? The reasons are open to interpretation, but my guess is that David Wilson wants to give you an experience that puts you in a state of confusion, astonishment, doubt, and wonder. It's a mental state worth experiencing, and the museum can imbue it in me every time I visit, even though I have a better idea of what's going on (or do I?).