Wandering around the American Museum of Natural History in New York, the way my family did last week, is thrilling, humbling and a bit sad all at once. The scope of the natural world is shocking to see when it is collected, classified, explained, constructed and deconstructed. For a person who has always loved tableaux and dioramas, I was nearly out of my mind at the wealth of taxidermy on display. And not the sad sack moth-eaten flea market taxidermy I usually encounter, where all you do is look at a mounted animal and think about suffering. No, this was taxidermy for the ages. The dioramas of North American mammals had just recently been restored and refreshed, and I would hardly have been surprised to see one of the grizzlies lunging at the glass. Far from being pitiable, the beasts of prey and prairie looked like they were still in charge of their world. But still, through the whole experience there was an undercurrent of sadness, a subtext of loss, similar to a zoo.
There’s a sense of nostalgia for a world that we never knew and the one that we have known. It is clear that the natural order of things involves a lot of death and regeneration (or not), a lot of kill or be killed, with a life cycle sometimes interrupted altogether through an intense cataclysmic change of some sort — which the dinosaurs discovered to their everlasting surprise. Humans excel at both killing and creating chaos; somehow stuffing and cataloging things to commemorate their existence can’t make up for the embarrassment at being on top of the food chain. I’m not apologizing for being a human — rumor has it we’re made in God’s image after all — but there is something so wistful about trying to understand every living thing that was and is. And we’ll get to that understanding — just as soon as we kill whatever it is and put it on display.
I want to be clear: there is no ethnographic arrogance at the American Museum of Natural History. The humility a museum-goer experiences comes from the beauty of the exhibitions themselves, and in the effort to make sense of the world we all inhabit. And after all, a third of the museum (I’m making up the percentage but the point is: it is a lot) is dedicated to everything off-planet. And Space is, as anyone who has ever watched Star Trek knows, the Final Frontier. As a visitor makes his way through the exhibits and the vast unknown and perhaps unknowable aspects of Space begin to crowd the mind, the plight of the polar bear in today’s world, or the dinosaurs in yesterday’s world, is viewed on a different scale and maybe even in a different light altogether.
In this age of copious amounts of information streaming live into our ears and eyes, is there a place for a museum like the Museum of Natural History? A museum originally designed to help 19th-century people, people generally stuck with moving from place to place in vehicles operating at the speed of four-horsepower, see and understand a natural world that they would never have access to otherwise? For my part, I say yes. To have the natural world curated by humans, who have dedicated their lives — from 143 years ago when the museum was founded all the way to this present moment — to understanding the world known and unknown, is life-altering for those of us who can only manage to dash in for five-hour stints to take a gander at dinosaur bones. We may have easy access to Wikipedia, the National Geographic Channel, and an infinite number of YouTube videos of mammals (honey badger anyone?), but that doesn’t mean we understand what we’re looking at.
The American Museum of Natural History is, quite literally, wonderful, with multiple cabinets of curiosities unfolding in front of visitors like a Jacob’s ladder, seemingly infinite, just like our world. Which we are finally realizing, in part due to the curatorial ability on display at the Museum of Natural History, is actually not infinite at all.