Thursday, August 21, 2014

Light and Dark ~ An Idiosyncratic View of the American Museum of Natural History

I loved that damned museum.
         ~ Holden Caulfield in
            J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye

Light, lights, daylight . . . ah, wonderful illumination.  That’s what I found most to love about the American Museum of Natural History on my first visit to this iconic institution.  A couple of weeks ago, while striding through the halls of the museum’s Koch Dinosaur Wing, I reveled in the lack of dim corners and deep shadows, an absence which did nothing to reduce the drama associated with these creatures.

By placing some dinosaurs in separate “islands” on different levels within a hall, the AMNH allows visitors to draw near to them and see many of them from all sides.  That, too, is to love.

With the closure of the dinosaur hall at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History and its five-year (if all goes well) renovation, I have become sensitive to the ways in which different museums might approach these twin issues of lighting and placement of specimens.  I have to admit that I was not fond of the Smithsonian’s dinosaur hall which I found dark and dreary.  The Dinosaur Wing at the AMNH, though now some 20 years removed from its last major renovation, offers me hope that what will come forth in Washington will be dinosaurs and associated specimens awash in light and very approachable.

That said, the content of the AMNH's Dinosaur Wing failed for me in one incredibly important way.  The “story” it sought to tell fell on my deaf ears.  I didn’t get it until later and, even then, I wonder why this story had to be told in this particular way.  The various vertebrate halls, including those in the Dinosaur Wing, are arranged as an “evolutionary tree of vertebrates,” with closely related taxa placed together.  There is a path that the museum wants visitors to follow to explore this overarching evolutionary theme through these halls, but, I suspect not one in a hundred visitors, if that many, tumbles to this.  As a consequence of the telling of the story this way, the two major lines of dinosaurs can be found in two different halls – one for Ornithischian Dinosaurs, and another for Saurischian Dinosaurs.  I certainly didn’t begin to hear the story being told until I started wondering why the saurischians (the so-called “lizard-hipped” dinosaurs) and ornithischians (the “bird-hipped” dinosaurs) lived separate existences in the AMNH, when, in life, they interacted.  Then I found the small signs that explained it.

As a consequence of this arrangement, what is missing is, in fact, the life that these creatures lived, the environments within which they lived and died, the different flora, and related and unrelated fauna that made up their worlds, and how all of that changed over time (somewhat quickly on occasion).  This story is one with particular salience today and the one I believe will be told and heard at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History in the future.  Indeed, the temporary dinosaur exhibit that will be mounted in November of this year at the NMNH embraces that story.  Titled The Last American Dinosaurs:  Discovering a Lost World, it will present a few of the last dinosaurs and the complexity of the ecosystem within which they lived and died.  And Deep Time, the hall that will replace the various fossils exhibits that have been shut down will, according to Smithsonian Magazine, “illustrate the relevance of paleontology to modern life, portraying ancient plants and animals as interconnected parts of ecosystems and revealing a fossilized world just as complicated as ours.”  (Vicky Gan, About Deep Time:  A Preview of the Natural History Museum’s Fossil Hall Renovation, October 29, 2013.)

Yes, I admit, this post is a decidedly skewed appraisal of the American Museum of Natural History.  I explored only part of the wonderfully rich array of specimens that the museum has on display.  But, to my disappointment, it was not hard to find places that shared none of the Dinosaur Wing’s love of light.  Many other displays in the museum accentuate darkness, and, it’s in the darkness, that I think Holden Caulfield would find, even today, that which he loved about the “damned” museum.

In the novel, Holden, in search of his sister Phoebe, walks across Central Park to the AMNH, despite the fact that it’s Sunday and Phoebe wont be there.
I knew that whole museum routine like a book.  Phoebe went to the same school I went to when I was a kid, and we used to go there all the time.  We had this teacher, Miss Aigletinger, that took us there damn near every Saturday.  Sometimes we looked at the animals and sometimes we looked at the stuff the Indians had made in ancient times.  Pottery and straw baskets and all stuff like that.  I get very happy when I think about it.
Holden remembers the Indian displays in particular, the long war canoe with Indian figures sitting in it, the glass cases with Indian figures captured at moments in time – the Eskimo fishing through a hole in the ice, the blanket-weaving Indian woman with an exposed breast.  Glass cases.
Boy, that museum was full of glass cases.  There were even more upstairs, with deer inside them drinking at water holes, and birds flying south for the winter.
What resonated the most, what meant the most to Holden was the permanence of the exhibits.
The best thing, though, in that museum was that everything always stayed right where it was.  Nobody’d move.  You could go there a hundred thousand times, and that Eskimo would still be just finished catching those two fish, the birds would still be on their way south, . . . .   Nobody’d be different.  The only thing that would be different would be you.  Not that you’d be so much older or anything.  It wouldn’t be that, exactly.  You’d just be different, that’s all.
It was a home to him, where younger brothers don’t die, people don’t change, and moments are captured forever.

Well, Holden, I have to say that, more than half a century later, you might still find some comfort in parts of the museum.  Glass cases with their captured moments abound in the halls with Indian displays or especially those featuring birds.  Is that the same Indian war canoe you saw, the one that seems to go on forever (“about as long as three goddam Cadillacs in a row”)?  And these halls, in particular, are dark.  As I wandered in them, I was looking through windows into fragmented worlds, shards of action glinting in the lights from within the glass cases.  I found much of this to be an unfortunate throwback to museums as I remember them to be.

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