Photos by the author unless otherwise stated

The History of the World Is Being Carved into Stone by an Old Man in the Desert

Jacques André-Istel has spent 30 years creating a museum he thinks will be there after humanity has departed Earth.

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Apr 15 2018, 4:00am

Photos by the author unless otherwise stated

Just across the California border from Yuma, Arizona, lies the town of Felicity, established in 1986 by now 89-year-old Jacques André-Istel. Pretty much the only reason you'd ever visit the town is to see another creation of his, the Museum of History in Granite.

The outdoor museum is made up of a series of 100 foot-long granite panels engraved with a history of civilization as a record for future generations, all sorted into categories like History of California and History of Humanity. According to Istel, they’re designed to last for 4,000 years and to serve as a record of our time for future beings, whether those beings are from Earth or elsewhere. The idea is that if humans die, or abandon Earth, the museum will still be here so that we won't be forgotten.

It invites you to imagine you are in a profoundly important place: In a pyramid at the southern end of the museum lies a marker denoting what Istel says is officially the Center of the World (the local county and France's Institut Geographique National back this claim).

Tourists take a selfie at the Center of the World marker.

Istel himself has lived a varied and fantastical life, the details of which sound like something from Wes Anderson character notes. According to Istel, he—deep breath—fled France as a child to get away from the Nazis, hitchhiked across the US at 14, trained as an investment banker, quit investment banking to open the first commercial parachuting school in the US (thus popularizing non-military skydiving), married a Sports Illustrated journalist who was sent to report on him, owns a piece of the Eiffel Tower, and travelled around the world in a two-seat plane.

He seems obsessed with collecting achievements. When I spoke with him, he claimed that his town of Felicity is the spot of “the last incursion on United States territory by a European power,” and “the first town in America named for a Chinese lady.” (It's named after his wife.) The museum's website is peppered with quotes about Felicity from the LA Times, TIME, and notable figures like a former French prime minister and a “consultant to the Library of Congress."

This is how he's described on the website of the Hall of Fame of Parachuting: "Jacques-Andre Istel - Chairman Created and edited the MUSEUM OF HISTORY IN GRANITE at Felicity as a legacy for Humanity. Served as Chairman of State Commission in Massachusetts. Introduced sport parachuting in the United States. U.S. Team Captain 1956 and World Record Holder 1961. Lifetime Honorary President of the IPC of the Federation Aeronautique Internationale, Co-Leader National Geographic Society Vilcabamba expedition 1964, Founder, Town of Felicity, Water Commissioner Imperial County, CA. Lt. Col. USMCR, Hon.Res.."

As for the history of the world Istel is inscribing in stone, it's all researched and written by the museum founder himself, with edits from his wife. Though the museum is not complete (Istel is currently working on an Animals of the World section), he estimates it would take around six hours to read it all.

So this is a brief history of the world—a sort of ultra-comprehensive version of “We Didn’t Start the Fire.” The subjects seem arbitrary, but when grouped together present what's actually a decent snapshot of life on Earth in the last 14 billion or so years. It runs from the Big Bang to Barack Obama, along the way touching on Gregorian chanting, Mickey Mouse, Buddhism, Confucius, Roe v. Wade, the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, gila monsters, Dolly Parton, the Panama Canal, moonshine, drones, Maya Angelou, the discovery of fire, Sesame Street, Vikings, Stonehenge, the Lindbergh baby, roller coasters, the pyramids, game theory, the space race, Mesopotamian agriculture, etc., etc..

Most of the writing is pretty dry, but because Istel is writing with an intended audience thousands of years from now, the information is often presented in ways that are unexpected and occasionally beautiful. His description of cinema: “From the 1940’s on, some movies emphasized mayhem; some provoked thought; and some were works of art.” His note on women being allowed to serve in the military: “The ultimate equality, unfortunately, includes far too often the permanent equality of death.”

I didn’t get to speak to Istel in person when I visited the museum (he told me that, as a former Marine, he likes to look his best and my visit had coincided with a moment when he didn’t look his best), but I spoke with him by phone a couple of weeks later. Here's what we talked about:

Mr. Istel at the Museum of History in Granite. Photo courtesy of Jacques André-Istel

VICE: Would you mind if I record this call for the sake of my notes?
Jacques André-Istel: No, record it by all means, because I have a quote for you that I would like to make sure gets said entirely.

OK.
What I’d like to start with, if I may: I’ve read your incisive articles, and with great interest. I wish we had met. What threw me off is the word "VICE.” I thought you were a reporter from some pornographic magazine.

Unfortunately, I’m not a reporter from a pornographic magazine, just regular old news and culture.
One can always hope, of course. Did you receive the few pages I [emailed to] you last night?

I did, yes.
On page 17, did you read the comments of Elizabeth Starr McClintock?

"No digital images could have prepared me for the tranquil, lofty sensation of standing among the monuments…”?
Yes. I wanted to know how that compared with your impressions of what you saw.

Yeah, that definitely lines up with what I saw. From googling before I visited, I was not expecting what I was met with. It’s definitely something that is a lot more impressive to see in person than it is in photographs.
I can’t tell you the difference that the entire side of the monument, 30 panels, of animals of the world [will make]. It adds a whole dimension, you see. I’m just wondering... what was your general impression?

In what sense?
You know that the New York Times sent a reporter to do a half-assed story on Center of the World. You probably read it.

Why do you say it was half-assed?
They used the term “absurdist joke.”

To refer to the entire thing, or to refer to the Center of the World?
To the Center of the World. But they also didn’t bother to make any comments about the monuments or the quality of any of the texts. Now, you may quote me on this, and I will say it slowly, quote: The New York Times, that bible of self-satisfied privilege, failed to do their homework, and as many commented, completely missed the point about the Center of the World.

What point do you think they missed?
Well, they called it an absurdist joke! It’s anything but a joke. It’s using a central point for a valid approach to education on a very, very long-term basis. I particularly appreciate the A+ that I received from a famed historian after I sent a copy of the engraved texts [of my history of the United States] and it could not be changed. It’s the only written A+ I ever got in my life, and I get it after 65 years. The next one is due, you see, in another half-century or so. I hoped you liked [the museum].

I did. I really enjoyed it.
One of the things I’m always asked is: Why do this? Now, you realize that, as a parachutist, one enjoys challenge, and there’s a great similarity between the work I did in parachuting and this work. The act of parachuting is measured in seconds, with mistakes punishable by death, [which] sets a standard for education. Well, the stakes in granite are not punishable by death, but punishable by looking like a complete idiot for a couple thousand years. So, you see the challenge.

Engraving in granite involves a 14-step process, the way we do it. I’m not going to bore you with 14 steps, but among others, after selecting the topic, after using a CAD program to lay out the text and frames, after re-reading it, after checking it for grammar, after asking my wife, who started life as a researcher for Time, Inc. before she wrote columns for Sports Illustrated, she goes over every comma. We all do. So after all of that, we cut the rubber stencil. Then we take the rubber stencil, and we read it over and over. Then I write my initials with "OK to paste," and it’s pasted up against the granite. And it can’t be cut until I put "OK to cut." So we read it again very carefully.

I gave an OK to cut on the panel about hippopotamuses. We had all checked it, the engraver, he checked. Happily, his brother was assisting him, and at the last second, before blasting the granite for millennia, we discovered that we had a hippopotamus 13.7 feet tall instead of 13.7 feet long! We came within seconds of my looking like a complete ass for the next millennia because the only thing people would remember about the museum would be a 13.7-foot-tall hippopotamus.

Have you noticed any typos or factual errors in the granite after you engraved something?
Well, I’ll tell you, in the last 14 years, only one person found a misspelling. In an extremely common word. He found a mistake about nine years ago. I immediately went out there, read the word, and couldn’t see the mistake. And then, putting my finger letter by letter, I saw it. The point is, when you read a very common word, your mind skips. Did you find any?

There were a couple of capital letters that I wasn't sure about. I made note as I went through. I could email them.
Please do! I’d appreciate that... Did I read you the quote from Gibbons, modified by me?

I’m not sure.
I will now. Because people ask me why I did this. It’s not because of the legacy. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the name Jean d'Ormesson, a very famous author who died recently. Of the Academie Francaise—are you familiar with what I’m talking about?

I'm not.
Well, they call them the immortals. To be a member of the Academie Francaise in France is the ultimate, it’s sort of like a Nobel Prize. Well anyway, this fellow was interviewed at 90, and he was asked, of course, about death and whatnot. And he said, "Well, I’ve read a great deal of Mother Teresa, and she struggled with doubts her whole life, so I’m curious about whether there will be nothing or whether there will be a god, and I hope there will be a god because it would be just awful to think of all the awful things happening on Earth not being punished."

I’m not doing this for legacy, since I don’t know what will happen after I’m gone. But I’m doing it for the challenge, number one, and number two, you may quote me, this is inspired by Edward Gibbon, 1737–1794, of course you know who Edward Gibbon is.

I don’t know who Edward Gibbon is.
He’s a very important guy—he wrote the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which is a classic text in literature and study of history. Now, quote, and this is my reason for what I do, with credit to Gibbon: Unprovided with original learning, unformed in the habits of thinking, unskilled in the arts of composition, I resolved to write history in granite.



And that’s based on a Gibbon quote?
Yes. I give him full credit, but I adapted it to my situation. Now, the interesting thing about this place is that we never advertise. Why? Well, first of all, this is a work in progress, and second, we have to get the point where we have significant worth, where we might eventually advertise. The town of Felicity has several sources of income, one of which is the farming that you saw. We have over 2,800 acres free and clear here, including quite a bit of farming, which is done by the world’s largest exporter of melons. And also there are few apartments for rent, and so, the operation of tourism here is something that will eventually become important. But at this stage, it’s just something that we hire a tour guide for four months a year and concentrate on writing panels in granite about animals. And also, we have to finish the history of humanity. Which is a fairly major chore.

Now, the interesting thing about this place is the education. Because this is another major motive—and I would like to put this down, quote: The purest form of education may be a self-directed search for knowledge. These summaries of vast subjects provoke and encourage such efforts. Now, for years, we were not taken seriously, and we didn’t particularly care one way or the other because we were busy, but for the last three years, the University of Northern Arizona has been using our panels for teaching, and that makes us extremely happy. Also, schools come down. Schools come from both Mexico and the US, and one school’s study program, so to speak, was that they put paper over particular panels, and with a pencil they get the words, and then they have to use that and write an essay on the subject.

That’s a great project.
Well, it’s the sort of thing that makes us happy.

Were there any sections that were a chore, that you felt had to be included but you had no interest in?
You’ve raised an interesting point. On the introduction [to the History of Animals panels,] I stated that they are divided into vertebrates and invertebrates. And then the next line says, “Surprise, the vertebrates, which are mammals, fishes, birds, reptiles, amphibians, represent only a very small part of the total, about 5 percent. The rest are invertebrates, which are mollusks, insects, and 6,000 species of worms." I was just thinking about how to do the invertebrates. You can only do so many panels on cockroaches and fleas and bed bugs. But anyway we found solutions, as we usually do.

You’ve mentioned earlier that you aren’t necessarily concerned with leaving a legacy with the museum, but what would you hope that your legacy is?
Now, I don’t think in terms of a legacy because once you’re gone, you’re gone, number one. And number two, as you can see, we have too many projects. I don’t feel 89 years old, but, you see, the challenge is counting the remaining panels of humanity that are to be written and the number of animal panels... How does one write these and how does one make the selections [on what to write] and whatnot?

Do you worry that the internet will replace people’s interest in seeing physical records of history like the museum?
Look, number one, there’s an old saying about "help me change the things I can and not worry about the things I can’t," and I’m misquoting but the point is, I think that anything written in granite will be there for a while.

Interview has been edited and condensed.

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