Of all the museums in New York, the one I’d most like to be completely alone in is the American Museum of Natural History. As I was looking through my photos from a recent visit with my dad who was visiting, I was struck with their quiet beauty, which was a bit overwhelmed by the crowd on our Sunday visit. (Most of the guests were under and 10 and REALLY REALLY wanting to see the dinosaurs.) That’s not to say it isn’t fun to visit the museum (it’s one of my favorites) and that the exhibits aren’t amazing to see in person, but just imagine being the only person in the museum with all these bones and taxidermy creatures, posed in odd memories of their lives.
The natural history museum is right by Central Park on the Upper West Side in a sprawling complex of conjoined buildings that started with a Victorian structure (now completely engulfed with new construction) opened in 1877. The museum was previously started in a nearby arsenal, and now has collections totaling over 32 million specimens. Of its exhibits on nature and culture (some more politically correct than others), the most mesmerizing are the dioramas, which have taxidermy animals in replicas of their natural habitats.
The Akeley Hall of African Mammals, named for the “father of modern taxidermy” Carl Akeley, is an astonishing room: an oval shaped, two-story space lined with 28 deep glass cases containing different detailed scenes. Akeley went to Africa with a team to collect the plant and animal specimens, many which were disappearing. I suppose you could say that killing an animal that is going extinct is not a great idea, but I guess there is also this need to preserve its memory. The ethics of natural history museums is something that would take a whole other post, but in Akeley’s case it seems his mind was in preservation through physically bringing these endangered creatures and places abroad. Akeley passed away in 1926 during one of his expeditions, and the place he was buried in is depicted in the gorilla diorama in this hall, which was finally finished 10 years after his death.
The hand-painted backdrops of the museum’s dioramas are also worth paying attention to, for the amazing way they create depth and a sense of place. Imagine if these two animals were just standing against a white wall under harsh overhead lighting. Grotesque!
Another extraordinary place in the museum is the Hall of Ocean Life, where a full-size replica of a blue whale hangs from the ceiling. It’s mind-blowing that an organism that big is living on the same planet as us, right? The whale is 94 feet long (blue whales can get up to 120 feet long, can you believe PT Barnum once wanted to keep one in captivity??) and is bathed in an atmospheric blue light. The whale was actually altered slightly and repainted in richer colors in 2003, and is looking quite lovely and dramatic in its kingdom.
The Hall of Ocean Life has dioramas as well, including some with taxidermy like this scene with seals, and others with models, including the impossible-to-photograph-properly squid and sperm whale struggling in the dark depths. It’s incredibly eerie, and I can guarantee that I would not have gone anywhere near it as a kid.
Some of the animals in the museum now only exist in this preserved form, including the passenger pigeons that perch on a faded replica oak branch. Considering that in 1808, there was a single flock estimated to have 2 billion birds, it is astounding that not a single one is left alive. The last one died in 1914 at a zoo in Cincinnati, the rest having perished due to the destruction of much of their main food source (oak and chestnut trees) and hunting.
The exhibits on people of the world are a lot less successful and, oddly, less sensitive to the lives they depict than the animals. This is probably because most of them haven’t been updated since the 1930s, not exactly a time of great cultural sensitivity. But I think this small diorama of a buffalo jump was actually quite good, both as a visual and recreating the action of a buffalo jump.
I suppose I can’t make a post about the American Museum of Natural History without mentioning the dinosaur halls, which are full of fossils of creatures both big and scary, and small and somewhat creepily cute. The bones on display are only a glimpse into the museum’s collections of fossils, most of which are in a 10-story building in the courtyard of the museum. I read that there is even a “Whale Bone Storage Room,” which I would absolutely love to see.
Perhaps someday I’ll end up at the museum on weekday, early when it opens, on a cold winter morning, and find myself alone with a giraffe twice my height or a gorilla with a human sadness in its plastic eyes. Until then, the museum is worth braving the crowds for, and has some of the most impressive exhibit spaces of any museum I’ve had the privilege of being jostled by strangers in.