The Very Large Array

The Very Large Array has, at the same time, an incredibly descriptive and totally unhelpful name. The array in question is a Y-shaped network of radio telescopes that sit in the New Mexican high desert. They’re turned to the sky, listening to the sounds of worlds light years away from earth.

Unless you’re New Mexican or move in space science circles, the Very Large Array (frequently called the VLA) is likely foreign to you except for the vague feeling that you’ve seen it somewhere. It’s got a surprisingly large pop culture presence. Carl Sagan drove it into the public eye when he included it in Cosmos. The VLA is highly recognizable – movies like Contact, Independence Day, and Terminator Salvation have been shot here. Heck, Bon Jovi even shot a music video at the VLA.

Jodie Foster's character from the film Contact listens to a headset at the Very Large Array.
Jodie Foster’s astronomer from Contact listening for sounds of alien life at the Very Large Array. Although the VLA isn’t used for SETI projects, it is certainly capable of picking up alien signals buzzing around the universe.

Even if you’re not super into space or Jodie Foster movies the VLA is still worth visiting. Its hugeness and remoteness mean it’s awe-inspiring even without context. While it takes some driving to get to, it’s open from 8:30 – sunset every day for self-guided tours, making it an accessible day trip. I made the trip from Albuquerque one very cold afternoon in January. (That’s another thing to be aware of: not only is the VLA remote, it’s cold in winter. The woman in the gift shop told me it had dropped to -2 F with windchill the day before.)

The gift shop has shorter hours than the grounds, so if you’re interested in getting post cards or asking questions, come before 4pm. There’s a small theater where a short documentary plays on demand, which I’d recommend you watch to get acquainted with what you’re about to see. There’s also a small museum to wander through. I got in for free, but I can’t remember if it’s because I had a student ID or because I attended UNM.

After that it’s out into the cold! (Or heat, depending on when you go, I guess.) There’s a short walking tour that should probably take about half an hour. It took me about ten minutes because – have I mentioned this yet? – it was so cold. The tour takes you past a small dish, a few interpretive labels, and then right to the base of the closest working dish. From there you can walk up onto the balcony of one of the science buildings for a fantastic view of one of the VLA’s branches.

The closest dish. It moved when I was there, which was spectacular.

I was very much by myself this trip. Apart from the lady in the gift shop, I only spotted two other visitors and one scientist.

After you finish the walking portion of your tour you can drive a short distance to see one of the dishes in the massive service shed. Once it’s all fixed up they’ll roll it out onto a special set of train tracks and drive it very, very slowly to its new home.

If you’d like to visit the Very Large Array, check out Roadside America’s entry. Make sure to peek at the official website for up to date information about visiting hours and other logistical concerns.

The Mysterious Mothman of West Virginia

Oh, Mothman. I never quite understood you. I mean, you seemed cool and all, but you were just some spooky dude with big wings and red eyes. All my friends in the regions of Tumblr’s cryptid zones thought you were so cool, the Hot New Cryptid, the Man (Moth?) of the Month.

But now? After visiting your hometown where they put up a statue of you and started a museum and host a festival every year? Okay, I’m starting to see it now. What about a mysterious insectohumanoid isn’t to like?

Mothman is Point Pleasant’s hometown hero, and he (probably) doesn’t even exist. He hasn’t even been sighted since the late 60’s, but that detail hasn’t cooled Mothman fever. If anything, the slew of sightings in a short 13 month period that ended suddenly with the tragedy of the Silver Bridge Collapse increased interest.

On our massive roadtrip from Albuquerque to New Hampshire, we weren’t exactly heading through West Virginia. No matter. We detoured to the little town anyway.

A splashy poster covering a whole wall reads 'MOTHMAN MUSEUM'.
The Mothman Museum, Point Pleasant, West Virginia

The museum itself is tiny, as I expected, but it only cost 3 bucks to get in. They have a lot of props and costumes from The Mothman Prophesies, and quite a bit of info on the odd gentleman who wrote the original Mothman Prophesies book. There are three different moth-folks to pose with, along with several maniquine Men In Black. If you want to, you can sit and watch a video. (We didn’t – gotta keep moving and such.)  There’s also some interesting stuff on the collapse of the Silver Bridge, a tragedy that killed nearly 50 people and shocked the whole town.

 

A series of magazines about the Weird featuring Mothman.
Magazines featuring stories about Mothman.

 

 

 

This will never fail to crack me up.
This will never fail to crack me up.

Outside of the museum, there’s a statue of Mothman. He can look shockingly different, depending on the artist, but this version has been photographed enough to become the definitive one. Go on, head over and take lots of pictures. You know you wanna.

'Found him!"
‘Found him!”

Visiting is easy, if you’re willing to drive a bit. Point Pleasant is about two hours from Dayton, Ohio, and about three from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Parking’s free, and there’s a good Mexican restaurant just a few shops down from the museum.  It’s a quick stop, and probably a total disappointment if you’re not interested in cryptids, conspiracy theories, aliens, or UFOs. But if you are interested, it’s totally worth it. There’s nowhere quite like it.

In Defense of The Museum of Jurassic Technology, Los Angeles

Museum of Jurassic Technology, a strange little museum in Los Angeles

The Museum of Jurassic Technology in Culver City, LA, is strange little place. I could try to describe it room by room, with accurate nouns and such, but a literal retelling of my trip won’t do it justice. Plus, I don’t want to spoil it for you, in case you ever end up going. It’s like The Sixth Sense – better if you don’t know the twists, although still worth your time if you do.

So. Imagine a wealthy gentleman from an alternate dimension has welcomed you to visit his private collection of trinkets and trappings from around an alternate universe. The rooms are dark and the layout impossibly twisty. You move between reading plaques that you know are false and exhibits you think are probably true. Here and there there are unexplained contraptions in unmarked boxes, and once a day a little theater shows a hypnotically dreamy movie you can’t figure out. On the roof, a woman serves you tea from a samovar and you sit and drink it as tame pigeons fly around you.

I know that sounds weird, maybe a little Nightvale-esque. And that’s how it feels.

Let me provide some clarification here. First, The Museum of Jurassic Technology is not about technology, or the Jurassic, or any combination of those things. (To the people I’ve seen complaining about the lack of actual Jurassic Technology: friends, I have some bad news for you about the technological achievements of dinosaurs.)

Second, the Museum is definitely a museum. Some people seem think that the MJT is an art installation, not a museum at all. I’m not sure what concept of a museum these people are working from, but I feel it’s arbitrarily narrow. A museum simply collects and displays objects of some significance. No one says they have to be upfront about everything. Besides, what exactly is the difference between a museum that’s actually an art installation and a plain old art museum?

The MJT invites you to think about museums. The Yelp reviews for the MJT are fascinating, as everyone seems to have strong opinions about what the museum’s purpose is and whether or not they enjoyed it.  Reactions from others range from “interesting and creative” to “what’s the point of a museum if you don’t learn anything”?  Multiple reviewers mention feeling like they were on drugs (glad I wasn’t the only one). Others talk about how creepy the place was or how dense the explanatory texts were.

The “Why would you go to a museum where you don’t learn anything?” issue is often repeated in negative reviews. This is a good place to mention that people go to museums for different reasons. Some go to learn. Some go to facilitate experiences for their children. Some seek a particular atmosphere, some visit museums because they were in town and it seemed like a cool thing to do. Every one of these reasons is a perfectly valid reason for visiting. (Here’s a bit more on the subject.) Museums aim to educate through collections, but administrators and visitors must realize that not everyone visits museums because they’re interested in absorbing facts from little white plaques.

Learning takes place in many ways – you can read about something, hear about something talk about something, or (most powerfully) experience something. Most people don’t spend much time thinking about the theory behind museums or their own reactions to exhibits. The MJT forces you to think about how you’re processing information, how museums are set up, and what your expectations of a museum are. Twisting halls make you think about layout. Dark rooms make you think about comfort and atmosphere. Long, long paragraphs of small print text make you think about exhibit design. Constantly catching yourself thinking “wait, is that real”? makes you think about how much faith you’ve previously put in exhibit designers. The elaborate bathroom and rooftop garden are unique, personal, and completely different from what most people expect, again making you think about what you expected and what you actually got.

That’s a little heady, so if you’re still reading, thanks for sticking around. I’ll wrap this up, as I don’t want to make the MJT sound pretentious or overly-meta. I don’t want to make it sound too much of anything at all, really. The museum is an experience in museums, a work of art, an interactive work of fiction, or an old building full of outright lies, depending on your perspective. If you’re in the area, it’s so worth the trip. Make sure to visit.

 

Three brightly colored eraser boxes, each designed like a box of tea.
Three tea scented erasers I picked up in the gift shop.

 

A hand holds a tea cup.
A tea cup from the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles, California.

 

Museum of Man’s Cannibals: Myth & Reality Special Exhibit

I love museums. Love ’em. I love how involving and interactive they can be, how they can bring people together, how intuitive and enjoyable they are compared to typical educational experiences.

This means that when I hit up a new city, I’m always checking sites like Atlas Obscura for quirky museums I might have otherwise missed. I also follow quite a few offbeat blogs that keep me updated about oddities, which is how I learned about the Museum of Man’s new exhibit on Cannibalism.

An hour or so spent in a room with strangers while you all learn about people who eat people may not sound like fun, and the Museum of Man gets that. They seem to have a thing for doing thoughtful, innovative exhibits on topics most people don’t like to discuss. (They just retired an exhibit on torture.)

As best I can tell, this theme started when the MoM was struggling financially and facing criticism for their portrayal of torture in the main galleries. Listening and responding to the community is of huge importance to modern museums, and so they designed a new special exhibit with the input of human rights groups and torture survivors. The resulting exhibit (which required an additional ticket for entry) was well received and helped the museum’s bottom line. The new cannibalism exhibit seems to take the same approach.

First off, let me tell you how impressed I was with the exhibit design. It was top notch – it made you think deeply, interact with the information, question your assumptions, and was varied without being busy. There was so much to do.

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In one interactive portion of the exhibit, visitors are invited to lift specially weighted buckets that simulate physical degeneration on siege rations.

The design actively avoided typical shock-and-horror that usually accompanies the topic of cannibalism. It starts with historical context, easing you into the tougher stuff, and by the time you’re leaving you’re asking yourself hard questions like “what is cannibalism, actually?”, “is cannibalism actually wrong?”, and “am actually a cannibal?”

…look, I totally get it if that turns you off from seeing the exhibit. But it’s worth it, if you’re in San Diego. Just maybe eat lunch before you visit, not after.

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The Studio Ghibli Museum

A robot from Castle in the Air with the words "Studio Ghibli Museum" in bold white letters

A quick note: this is from the blog I kept when I was in Asia during 2014 and 2015. You can read old posts here.

Although anime and manga still aren’t quite “mainstream” in the US, if you haven’t heard of Studio Ghibli, you must have been living under a rock. You’re also probably new to this blog, because I’ve posted about Ghibli films twice: here, in a general post, and here, in a post about  the studio’s Academy Award-Winning Spirited Away.

Anyway, I’ve been a fan of Studio Ghibli and the works of Hayao Miyazaki for years now, so when I planned my trip to Japan, a stop at the Studio Ghibli Museum was at the top of my “to do” list. The museum, also known (for some reason) as the Museo d’Arte Ghibli, is in the town of Mitaka on the outskirts of Tokyo. It’s inaccessible by car, and visitors are strongly encouraged to take public transit all the way or walk part of the way.

A sign pointing to the Studio Ghibli museum in Mitaka, Tokyo, Japan

It’s easy to find the museum from the train station.

No pictures are allowed inside the museum, so you can fully experience it without the distraction of the camera. I appreciated the rule for a different reason: since I had no idea what the inside looked like, everything was interesting and surprising and worth exploring.

A group of people waiting in line outside the entrance to the Studio Ghibli Museum

Waiting in line for the first entry slot in the morning.

The museum was designed by Miyazaki himself, and his fingerprint is on everything. I’ve been to plenty of theme parks before, ones that look nice but are a little too shiny, or where you find that what you thought was wood is painted on or the cast iron is hollow in the middle. At the Ghibli museum, everything feels real. The museum treats children like individuals, and everything is child safe. Exhibits have steps in front of them, so that children can see the exhibits without their parents’ help. I actually had to bend down quite a bit to see some things, as they were set up at a six year old’s eye level.

A young woman with sunglasses standing in front of a model of a robot from Castle in the Sky at the Studio Ghibli Museu

This creature is from Laputa: Castle in the Sky resides on the roof. Pictures are allowed on the roof, so here, have some more!

 

Model of a robot from Castle in the Sky

Up on the roof there were dozens of people in a small space. How I managed to get a picture without a single one of them is beyond me.

 

A large cube with strange patterns, from Castle in the Sky

This is also from Castle in the Sky, if I’m remembering correctly.

When you enter the museum, you get a ticket to see a short film. There are nine films on rotation, each one only available at the Ghibli museum. Each guest can only see one film. Everyone understood how special this was, because as soon as the movie started, everything was completely silent.  The movies are completely in Japanese, but that hardly mattered. That’s the beauty of cinema, after all–it’s a heavily visual medium. I saw The Day I Harvested a Planet, which was magical.

A short strip of three film frames, surrounded by a cardboard frame.

Each ticket is special, too, with a few frames from a Ghibli film. I think these are from Spirited Away.

It’s hard to do the museum justice in a short blog post, and I think that’s intentional on Miyazaki’s part. It’s designed to be an experience, so writers are left in a catch-22 because if we do it justice in words, we take away from an potential experience.

This, then, is where I end my post. Hopefully, you too can one day take a trip to the Ghibli museum and experience it the way it’s meant to be experienced.

A robot from Castle in the Air with the words "Studio Ghibli Museum" in bold white letters