A&E » Book Reviews


Recapturing imagination



The Museum of Lost Wonder

By Jeff Hoke

2006, Red Wheel/Weiser Books

160 pages, $59.95


Reviewed by Andrew Mitchell

Growing up is a little like being dropped into a funnel. When you’re a child anything is possible, Santa Claus to space travel, and the world is a very big place to explore. It seems like you have all the time in the world.

But as you grow older and by necessity more practical, that realm of thought and possibility gets narrower. We have less time to sit and ponder the big questions and to use our imaginations.

To recapture what he calls our lost sense of wonder, renowned museum curator Jeff Hoke has put together perhaps the most eclectic collection of alternative streams of thought and being outside of an Umberto Eco novel, prompting us to step outside the usual boundaries and look at things in new ways.

The Museum of Lost Wonder is not for everybody. Though Hoke went to great lengths to simplify complex concepts in his exhibits using charts, illustrations and various arts and crafts projects, some people just won’t be curious or open enough to different ideas to take the tour. But if you want to know more about obscure branches of physics, methaphysics, alchemy, philosophy, astronomy, protobiology, history, psychology and dozens of other concepts, step right in.

The concepts are loosely based into eight chapters, all beautifully developed and illustrated. There is Calcinatio (Inspiration), Solutio (Reflection), Coagulatio (Introspection), Sumblimatio (Imagination), Mortifiactio (Melancholy), Separatio (Distinction), Conjunctio (Illumination) and Circulatio (Circulation), preceded by an introduction and followed by an appendix of references and special exhibits.

There are many exhibits in the museum, from an overview of alternate creation theories, to an explanation of the Tibetan Book of the Dead, to the dichotomy of genes (genetic traits) versus memes (learned traits). One of my favourite chapters looks at different ways that people have had visions and hallucinations through sensory deprivation, simulated snow blindness, pulsing lights, hypnosis, sleep deprivation, dreaming, and celestial music. This includes an experiment that requires you to hang an oven rack by strings tied around your index fingers and jammed into your ears, and having a friend tap the rack with a wooden spoon.

You can get through the museum in a day, although you might want to linger for a while over Hoke’s beautiful and thoughtful diagrams and charts that explain everything from Big Bang theory, to the Phenomenology of Meaning, to the Map of Tenderness (first presented in 1654). The concepts presented in the book also deserve some serious thought and no doubt you’ll come back to them again and again as you come across the same ideas in your own life. There’s no doubt that the museum can be applied in the real world in countless ways.

If you agree with what Socrates said, that “the unexamined life is not worth living,” then maybe it’s time to visit the Museum of Lost Wonder. It may be a personal journey, but Hoke provides you with the tools and context to get the most out of your reflections.