Field Notes: Diorama Obscura
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Outside magazine, February 1998
Field Notes: Diorama Obscura
Shuffling among history’s spoils, with animate bones, 18 million bugs, and trickster memories
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 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
“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
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
“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
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
“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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.