Field Notes: Diorama Obscura

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, February 1998

Field Notes: Diorama Obscura

Shuffling among history's spoils, with animate bones, 18 million bugs, and trickster memories
By Mark Levine

Not long ago, I returned home from a trip to Asia, where I had climbed a slick path up the side of an active volcano, plastering my boots with a thick layer of rust-red mud. I stepped past fist-size spiders and golden husks of beetles and enormous contorted vines, and the misted jungle beyond was green, and the hyper-real landscape could have been the setting for a fable in deeply buried childhood. Call it sentimentality, but my muddy boots, carted home in a plastic bag, somehow became a viable souvenir of my foray through the looking glass. I've never been much of a collector of anything, but unpacking my boots back in New York, I felt an odd kinship with all those who have been moved to preserve their perishable memories against the expunging effects of time — the mummifier, the portraitist, the scavenger of trinkets, the tourist venturing out with camcorder strapped across his chest. "To renew the old world, that is the collector's deepest desire," the philosopher Walter Benjamin wrote.

The morning after my return, guided by fatigue or by irresistible impulse, I took the A train to the Upper West Side of Manhattan and the American Museum of Natural History, where the tangled desires of collectors find extreme expression. I tended to think of the place as a cobwebbed crypt, a monument to collapsed empires, but I was dazed by jet lag, unprepared for the volcanic challenges of New York, and in need of a little refuge from the New World. Somehow, I hoped that the museum's vaunted stock of more than 30 million specimens and artifacts, keepsakes trundled home by generations of travelers, would carry me into a dreamscape of collective memory, where the elegiac impulse to surround oneself with tokens of foreignness could safely be indulged.

In the peculiar case of a natural history museum, nostalgia for a vanished past is fed in complicated ways, not least because what's being documented in such places is a past that's largely imagined: the presumed "state of nature," in which arboreal jungles flourished and the giant trees stood uncut, where hunter-gatherers lived uncorrupted by Coca-Cola and the tape recorders of anthropologists. At the American Museum of Natural History, the grandest habitation of this vision, capitalizing on one's wistful longings for unconquered nature is an art form.

I had recently moved back to New York after more than 20 years away, and had avoided the museum with the same zeal that I avoided listening to my collection of scratchy Doors albums — there seemed to be no need to so cruelly confront my former self. When, as a boy, I was taken to visit the museum, the place seemed to be the site of all that was mysterious and grand: a labyrinthine storehouse of lacquered bones and stampeding diorama elephants and mannequin Indians staring grimly over outstretched bows. Its indoor panoramas posited a mirror realm of contained spaces without boundaries, a landscape in which everything wild could be tamed and frozen on the verge of animation. Surely, I thought, this murky, slightly threatening universe was a changeless place, impervious to the revisionist naggings of late-twentieth-century sensibilities and postmodern doubt.

I soon discovered with some relief that it's still a kid's world at the museum. An orange caravan of school buses lined Central Park West, and I was surrounded by a blur of six-year-olds. (I later would learn that half of the three million visitors who pass through the museum each year are too young to vote.) I contemplated a green-and-black-streaked statue of Theodore Roosevelt, mounted on horseback and sternly guarding the massive granite and sandstone building. This effigy of Roosevelt — whose father was one of the museum's original trustees and who himself hunted elephants for the museum's halls — packs a pistol on each hip and is flanked by the standing figures of two dutiful, rifle-bearing companions: an Indian in feather headdress and an African draped in a skimpy robe. The Rough Rider and his cohorts survey the wilds of Central Park.

The museum's founding, in 1871, was a by-product of the peculiar blend of nation-building and nature-stalking that we've come to associate with Roosevelt. But much of the museum's own mystique was projected in black-and-white images captured during the institution's virile youth: pictures of those swashbuckling days, from the turn of the century through the 1920s, that defined the so-called golden age of exploration. In jittery newsreel footage, naturalist-explorers outfitted like model colonial gentlemen in starched khakis and panama hats led convoys of pack animals and native bearers into alien landscapes. If the museum didn't invent the comic-book and Tarzan-movie prototype of the active man of science, it certainly embraced and popularized it. In the early 1930s, the museum's muscular approach to research was reflected in museum president Henry Fairfield Osborn's belief that scientists who held doctoral degrees were too "theoretical" for the vigorous demands of such work.

As the museum doors opened that morning, a teacher wearing a Jurassic Park baseball cap commandeered his group into formation. The Spielbergian vision of popular science is nothing new: The museum's predominant purpose has been to gather and house collections of scientific arcana for research purposes, but even during the museum's infancy, railroad magnate and founding president Morris K. Jesup was emphatic about the importance of charisma. "We ought to have more lions and other big mammals," he declared, "because they are what interest the public the most." To the Gilded Age robber barons who first backed the museum's expeditions, scientific fieldwork and trophy hunting seemed to be perfectly compatible activities. Most of the trustees, as one historian of the early days of the museum has written, "simply liked the idea of owning knowledge by buying collections of facts and putting them in cabinets."

Even as the museum mines — and markets — its flamboyant past, no one there will admit that scientific fieldwork was once a cover for bringing home flashy souvenirs.

As its first expedition, in 1888, the American Museum of Natural History sent a hunting party to North Dakota to collect bison endangered by the very expansionism the museum's founders championed. Later, when Robert Peary devised a way to haul what was then the world's largest known meteorite from Greenland to Manhattan, the museum footed the bill. The trustees also anted up for a five-year expedition in search of "Crocker Land," a presumed Arctic Shangri-la that turned out to have been based on a literal mirage. Museum archaeologists excavated Inca ruins and Anasazi cliff dwellings. Paleontologists scoured the newly pacified American West for dinosaur fossils, unearthing, in 1902, the dinosaur they called Tyrannosaurus rex, whose awesome star power has been confirmed by each successive generation. Then there was Roy Chapman Andrews, one of the historical figures on whom Indiana Jones is said to be based. Chapman, a lean, eagle-eyed mammalogist, led the museum's 1921-1930 Central Asiatic Expedition into the Gobi Desert, hoping to find fossils that would provide the "missing link" to the human evolutionary past. The expedition spent its winters living in imperial splendor in Beijing, attended by footmen and courtesans, and Andrews's popular dispatches from the Wild East offered bravura accounts of shoot-outs with Mongolian bandits and death-defying encounters with ravaging sandstorms. The museum reported at the time that it received thousands of letters each year from boys hoping to join the expedition.

The unashamedly corny museum of my childhood was a largely somber place that trusted its collections to inspire reflexive awe in visitors. Vestiges of that past can still be found by meandering down the occasional dim, diaper-scented corridor, where one approaches moldering displays with titles like "Making Maple Sirup in the Catskills, 1870" or comes across approving descriptions of forest clear-cutting that explain to the credulous that "a large opening is thus created in which conditions are ideal for the growth of new trees." Still, it's in these dwindling old exhibits that the sadly comforting experience of falling through a large hole in time is still preserved.

Today's media-savvy museum is intent on proving its "relevance" to society in ways that must not have much concerned its forbears. Part of this effort involves mining — and marketing — the museum's flamboyant past while conveniently stowing any untoward political baggage out of sight. Despite the fact that no one at the museum will admit that scientific fieldwork was once a cover for bringing home splashy souvenirs, the portable CD guide I picked up in the Roosevelt Rotunda — a space famous for its enormous dinosaurs rising through dust-motes towards the domed ceiling — is tellingly called "Expedition: Treasures from 125 Years of Discovery." "Enjoy your quest," said the counter person who collected my $8 rental fee. I slipped on my headphones and girded myself for exotic encounters. My quest was narrated, in part, by the aw-shucks voice of a "re-created" Roy Chapman Andrews.

Part of the museum's historic purpose, it seems, has been to offer its audience the vicarious thrill of exploration — a challenge made more difficult by latter-day competition from the likes of the Discovery Channel and safari outfitters who help clients hire their own native tent-builders. The museum certainly tries, with interactive displays and IMAX screenings that struggle to bring children an experience that they haven't already gotten elsewhere. In truth, the museum lost its exclusive proprietorship of the wilds of the world several generations ago, starting when the Great Depression dried up funds for exploration. Plane travel would later diminish the exotic aura of global travel, science would become too highly specialized to have much use for multidisciplinary collecting parties, and the formerly colonized regions of the world would grow less hospitable to plunder. All of which seems to make 1990s-style expeditioning something more naturally undertaken in the simulated terms of the digitized voyage. "Much of what you see here," says the virtual Roy Chapman Andrews, "is real."

I took to wandering through the endless galleries over the next few weeks, pursuing the question of whether the museum's reckless adolescence had yielded to a sober maturity. I made an appointment with Michael Novacek, who occupies an elegant corner office on the museum's fifth floor and who was reluctant to make such an admission. Novacek, 48, is an eminent paleontologist — like the majority of his peers at the museum, he holds that emblem of over-refinement, the Ph.D. — and he bears the institutional title of provost, which means he supervises the museum's scientific activity. Once he starts talking, though, his administrator's business suit begins to seem out of character. "I dreamed about going to the Gobi Desert since I was seven years old," he confesses, sounding not unlike an ingenuous seven-year-old.

For the last decade and a half Novacek has spent his summers leading the splashiest expeditions of the museum's new age — treks to Montana and Wyoming, to Baja, to the Patagonian Andes, and most profitably to the barren ground of the Gobi that Roy Chapman Andrews first delved for the museum 70 years ago, territory later closed to Westerners for 60 years. Andrews was a boyhood hero of Novacek's, and "it's no less risky to work in the Gobi now than it was during Andrews' time," Novacek told me. "There is no good map of the area" — which occupies half a million square miles — "and there are no reliable roads. There's essentially no air support for getting us out of the Gobi."

Novacek leaned forward and tugged at his thick beard and issued a warning: "A bad day in the field is just about as bad as any day you'll ever have. In '85 I was stung by two scorpions in Baja. That was a very bad day."

A very good day, on the other hand, might be like July 16, 1993, when Novacek's crew, delayed in the Gobi while one of its trucks was being dug out of the sand, wandered over to a set of "undistinguished-looking badlands" and happened upon what he described as "perhaps the world's richest dinosaur site. We found over 25 skeletons of dinosaurs in the first two hours, just lying on the surface." An hour later, he said, another museum paleontologist unearthed a nest containing the first fossilized dinosaur embryo ever discovered.

Unlike Andrews's finds in the 1920s, whatever Novacek collects ultimately belongs to Mongolia. The fossils are loaned to the museum for study but will not join its estimated catalog of 330,000 specimens (most of which are stored in a specially reinforced building at the center of the museum's complex). In Novacek's world, though, hunting for data provides a thrill akin to old-time trophy-hunting. "We're still collecting the site in the Gobi," he said. "We're going to collect it until they kick us out of there. We're going to try to get every great skeleton out of that place.

"The 'golden age of exploration' isn't over," he continued. "It's a little frustrating always having to deal with a mindset that assumes the halcyon days are gone, that there are no more continents, that we're working in the rain shadow of a great series of events from the past. That's just not true. What is true is that the parameters are changed. Striking out into the unknown is more a matter of extending intellectual frontiers than geographic frontiers."

On the evidence, the museum realizes there are some subtle distinctions between the substance of Novacek's complicated zeal and what is popular. By far the most frequently congested aisles are those in the slick and stunningly installed vertebrate fossil halls. These crowd-pleasing displays, recently unveiled to much acclaim, are the museum's now: high-ceilinged, floodlit spaces stocked with gleaming cases of bones arrayed in settings that are remarkably beautiful, almost totemic — as if Brancusi took his hand to the geologic record. They're an example of what Novacek described to me, somewhat wearily, as the museum's "great objects for worship." Video monitors offer educational nuggets, and the halls proceed according to cladistic diagrams — the current thinking in evolution — to provide the experience of wandering schematically through the evolutionary past. It all works exactly as it should, efficiently and with a carefully calibrated enthusiasm for its subject that would be hard to mistake for passion or intellectual adventure. It almost makes one rue the eclipse of a kind of innocence, the museum's and one's own, from a time when the world seemed to be only vaguely understood, at times chaotic — even, perhaps, wild.

"I hate postmodernism, man," said James Carpenter, a short, long-armed fellow of rather bug-like mien who is a curator of entomology at the museum and who Novacek assured me is a "wild man." Carpenter's computer is topped with a translucent statue of the Virgin Mary, and his office wall bears an American flag decorated with the figure of Batman. The workaday costume of the reluctant contemporary scientific maverick, I gather, comprises stained Nikes, orangeish glasses, and a wildly unkempt coiffure. The 41-year-old Carpenter spends about half of his time roving the planet in his beekeeper's suit in search of wasps, and he's tracked down specimens on six continents. He grew up fossil-hunting and insect-collecting with his father, and his office cabinets are stocked with thousands of wasps, each neatly pierced with a pin. Like his predecessors at the museum, Carpenter has a passion for collecting, and his research involves re-drawing the evolutionary chart on wasps. He's also fluent in the ironic vocabulary of the contemporary expeditioner, which replaces romantic motifs like the Search for the Missing Link with the more muted lingo of ecology. "Nowadays," he said, "I'd say, 'I do the biodiversity of the stinging wasp.'"

Insects don't draw gasps the way dinosaurs and elephants do, and there are currently no entomological exhibits at the museum. Carpenter told me, nonetheless, that the museum's collection of bugs and spiders tallies about 18 million specimens — nearly half of the museum's mind-boggling catalog of artifacts, of which less than two percent are on display. He spent the next hour showing me a few hundred thousand of the finer specimens — metallic horned beetles, pale green cockroaches, a praying mantis from equatorial Africa adorned with a bull's-eye marking, inch-long horseflies, zebra-striped butterflies from Nepal.

"When I hear 'expedition,'" Carpenter mused, "I get this image of pith helmets and guys in khaki shorts with long socks drinking gin and tonics in the shade." Carpenter's wasp-hunting is usually a modest, minimally staffed undertaking, and he prefers not to camp out. "I'd rather be some place where I can get out of the rain," he admitted. "I parasitize tourist lodges." In the museum's vaunted past, adventurers have been stranded in the tundra, have killed charging leopards barehanded, have been tracked by Czarist spies across Siberia. Such were the occupational hazards of the day. For his part, Carpenter has been stung by more wasps than most anyone else on earth. He assures me that it always hurts.

The phenomenon of the natural history museum has its own curious cultural history. "Wonder cabinets," private collections of exotica — bones and trinkets and dubious relics — appeared in Europe in the late sixteenth century, largely as a way of showcasing the marvels of the New World. By the eighteenth century, under the cover of objective science, natural history museums were opened in Britain and France. Bones were no longer regarded simply as mystic talismans; the new science of evolution made their study respectable. In the meantime, the parvenu culture of the New World was developing its own ambitious identity, extending its domain into the American wilderness and looking to purchase some respectability for itself. (The inception of the American Museum of Natural History was closely associated with that of the august Metropolitan Museum of Art, which opened a year earlier, in 1870, directly across Central Park.) The enduring form that the "wonder cabinet" came to take in natural history museums was, of course, the diorama, that collage of pre-TV illusionism and zoo-like captivity.

One day I was resting my legs on a bench as I contemplated the eight mounted elephants that form the centerpiece of the museum's Akeley Hall of African Mammals. Carl Akeley, who died of dysentery in the Kivu Volcanoes region of the Belgian Congo in 1926 — near the site represented in the hall's mountain gorilla display, which features gorillas shot by Akeley himself — led some of the museum's most magnanimous donors on jungle safaris to collect the animals in the room, and the exhibits are a monument to hot-blooded naturalism. The perimeter of the hall is occupied by 28 "habitat groups," shop-window displays of elegantly stuffed specimens (Akeley was an innovator in taxidermy) posed in the midst of an abundance of real and really artificial flora and fauna. Three-dimensional plants and animals are set against painted backdrops that, while routinely praised for their "naturalism" after the hall opened, in 1936, now strike the weary postmodern virtual expeditioner as a grandiose primer in paint-by-number aesthetics. Why was I drawn back to long-forgotten thoughts of Cliffside Park, New Jersey, and my grandparents' basement, and a View-Master that I hold up to the light to catch colorful glimpses of Persia, Constantinople, the Belgian Congo? "Akeley wanted to stop time," explained my CD-based expedition leader, "to freeze and capture these glorious sights of Africa." Of course, continues the culturally sensitized Roy Chapman Andrews, "today the museum doesn't gather specimens the way Carl Akeley did."

I got up and wandered over to a diorama called "Leopard and Bush Pig," which held me transfixed. The viewer, in the position of looking through what Akeley called "a peephole into the jungle," assumes the perspective of the leopard, eyeing the clueless bush pig prey through the branches of a vine-covered ginger tree. A stump rots eternally in the foreground, and past a scrim of wildflowers and brush, two more pigs drink from a pool in the painted swamp background, out of reach of stuffed predators. There is a sort of melancholy grandeur in the scene — an exquisitely mummified world suspended on the edge of a crisis that will never be resolved. It's less a peephole into Africa than it is a thumbnail sketch of a way of thinking about nature, one that's far from obsolete: the atavistic spectacle as a scintillating form of human drama.

Of all the museum's "treasures," it was the Hall of Northwest Coast Indians — repository of dozens of extraordinary carved totem poles and masks — that most awed me as a child. Vividly painted Bella Coola masks had curved bill-like noses and eyes opened as if in a state of unrelieved astonishment; smaller, sharper Tlingit masks featured mouths as livid and distorted as any expressionist sculpture. These artifacts still retain the power to jolt the tired adult visitor from museum stupor. Why, after all, are people — or more particularly, Native Americans, Asians, Africans, Pacific Islanders (Europeans and their American descendants presumably being not "natural") — included in this storehouse of "natural history"?

"The golden age of exploration isn't over," Novacek says. "It's frustrating, this assumption that we're working in the rain shadow of great events from the past."

It was the far-seeing, intrepid explorers of the Jesup North Pacific Expedition, setting out from New York a hundred years ago on the museum's first large-scale field research project, who gathered most of the material for the displays on Pacific Coast Indians. Led by anthropologist Franz Boas, the expedition tried to answer the question of the geographical origin of Native Americans by conducting a sweeping survey of native cultures on both sides of the Bering Strait. Boas's men gathered artifacts, snapped photos, made wax cylinder recordings of myths, took measurements with calipers, and made molds of their subjects' faces. As with Andrews's search for the "missing link," the grandiose question that initiated the Jesup expedition remained unanswerable but permitted researchers to collect vast amounts of booty. And they succeeded not just in looting cultures but in preserving remnants of their existence. The museum houses, for instance, some of the most complete physical evidence of Siberian tribes whose cultures were decimated by forced assimilation under Stalin.

On one of my visits, I went to the office of Laurel Kendall, an expert in Korean shamanism who helped organize an exhibition commemorating the Jesup expedition's centennial. Although Kendall stressed that "the Jesup expedition was certainly not just an elaborate shopping trip," she asserted, adamantly and unsentimentally, that from her point of view the age of visionary anthropological adventure is long past. "Anthropologists stopped thinking of what they do as 'expeditions,'" she said. "They reached the point where they realized that the anthropological enterprise and the naturalist enterprise are fundamentally different. As I understand the concept of an 'expedition,' you go out with a team and you do a lot of collecting. This thing we call 'culture,' though, is not just in people's pots and blankets. It's in their heads."

On my way out of the museum, I stopped for a moment at a 63-foot canoe, carved in the 1870s from a single red cedar log by Haida Indians of British Columbia's Queen Charlotte Islands. The canoe is decorated with a wolf and whales and ravens. Its interior, hollowed out with fire and adzes, is populated by 17 modeled Indians, some of them clutching paddles or poles. They're said to be off to a potlatch, the ceremony in which tribal chiefs dispose of their wealth in order to display power. What would those long-vanished patriarchs of dispossessed tribes say now, finding their goods scattered in halls endowed by America's patrons of Manifest Destiny? Whose power was vested in whom? The paddler's faces are made from plaster casts of Indians — real Indians — collected by the Jesup expedition. The bodies, though, were cast later, from non-Indians. Technically speaking, the faces don't belong on their bodies. But there's much in this building that's fortuitously and gloriously mismatched. Nature itself fits a bit uneasily into a museum. The world within these walls is, however, make-believe, the stuff of childhood fantasy, adult fancy, memory, marketing, and an ostensible age of plenty reconstructed bone by bone.

The Haida paddlers can't complain. They've been in the canoe since 1910, and they've only made it as far as the museum's 77th Street entrance — my exit — and there's no telling whether they think they're oceanborne on an endless expedition, or merely lost on a haunted island far from home.

Correspondent Mark Levine's last article, "Mourning in Sumatra," ran in the December 1997 issue.

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