Thursday, March 4, 2010

Birds of the Pacific Islands

Birds of the Pacific Islands, 2010

We went to the American Museum of Natural History in New York last weekend. It’s one of my favorite places in the city.

It might not have been the smarted day to visit the museum. It was a Saturday and snowy. Every parent in Manhattan that couldn’t bear the thought of spending the day cooped up in an apartment with the kids decided the Natural History Museum was a good place to go hang out. So the Museum was overflowing with families and little kids, sharing their sneezes and coughs with all, especially in the live butterfly exhibit, a.k.a. “the 80-degree cold and flu incubator.” As a diabetic, I have to at least try to stay clear of people with easily spread sicknesses. I’m surprised I didn’t come out of that exhibit with pink eye or the mumps.

For my twentysomething daughter, The Museum of Natural History itself is a step back in time. She even commented that she likes it because it’s like stepping into an “old school” museum or, put differently, a museum about old museum displays. One of her friends works at the Museum and jokes about how they have so many stuffed animals that don’t meet contemporary interpretative standards that they use them to decorate their offices. And for those who like the movies of Wes Anderson, there’s no denying that the way he frames many of his films—as if they’re being performed on a proscenium stage with red velvet curtains—is inspired by the carved wood enclosures that frame many of the Museum of Natural History’s dioramas.

Still, the American Museum of Natural history is a magnificent place, built when public buildings were expected to be uplifting and full of classical references. The 4th floor dinosaur galleries have high ceilings and tall windows, as if the giant dinosaur skeletons might have a hankering to step out and stroll in Central Park.

Down on the ground floor the giant whale hangs by its tail from the ceiling. Always a crowd pleaser. And down under the whale’s immense belly is the famous diorama depicting the battle between the squid and the whale, which Noah Baumbach used as a metaphor in his film of the same name.

It’s possible at the Museum of Natural History to track the history of the natural world from different perspectives. In the older part of the Museum, there’s the obvious timeline of life forms, from the tiniest first sparks of biological life right up through modern man. At the other end of the building, the Rose planetarium shows how our whole earthly experience fits into a much, much broader and ever expanding universe. I’ll admit that during the planetarium program I got a little tangled up in the astrophysics. But even if you get a little confused by the science, it’s impossible not to come away recognizing that all of us, our human existence, our world and even our galaxy are just itty bitty specs of dust in the big picture of things, whatever that is. Talk about a humbling experience!


  1. My grandfather used to take us to the planetarium as kids and my favorite part was the fake rain they'd drop on us. Now, I think I would walk out feeling like you did and I'd hate the rain (if they still do that). Rain makes my hair curly...

  2. I love that place: it's just such a blast from the past. I have such fond memories of my parents taking us there as little kids, and then when I got older and would head into the city on my own, I would invariably make a beeline for those damn dinosaur galleries.

  3. I love it too, but without the childhood memories. I think the dioramas are one of the purest ways ever created to imagine oneself into the deep past. And I think I must have 1st seen them in my 20s.