Storage closets of the American Museum of Natural History
February 12, 2009 7:12 PM   Subscribe

Backstage at the American Museum of Natural History: an essay and a slideshow.
posted by serazin (6 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Most excellent. I've been curious about the hidden parts of that museum for years, and only partially satisfied by the teasing glimpses in the odd "Light Elements" column and the fictional yarns in Relic.
posted by Songdog at 7:22 PM on February 12, 2009

That slideshow is tremendous. Thank you.

I think I'll show it to my biology class.
posted by CaptApollo at 7:40 PM on February 12, 2009

awesome. my favorite museum even cooler now. thanks for the link!
posted by fuzzypantalones at 7:57 PM on February 12, 2009

Oh, this brings back wonderful memories.

A long time ago - a little over 12 years ago now - I didn't work for museums. Never really thought about it. I was a primary-grades teacher.

I grew friendly with a family from the school - housesat and babysat for their kids, and eventually had one of them as my own student. This family had met, while on vacation, a small group of tern researchers who work each summer on Great Gull Island, counting migrating terns. They struck up a friendship and became supporters of the museum.

Well, one of my colleagues was a huge bird person - obsessed with wild birds of all kinds. So this family invited her to visit the museum with them to have a tour with the bird scholar they had gotten to know. And, knowing I was a big nature nugget and generally nosy and curious, they invited me too.

We checked our coats, met the scholar in the main entry hall, and strode along the great corridors. But the most awesome moment, which I still remember, was when our guide opened a totally nondescript boring door in the hallway, and we stepped through to the Other Side. It was the same experience this author describes of entering through a "dim wall" that's barely perceptible to the outsider.

First surprise - no little shabby closets and corridors - the 'back rooms' of the Nat. Hist are enormous. Some are full wings, looking just like the public galleries - only not maintained as well. The walls weren't painted as brightly, the lighting was poorer, and there were items sitting around haphazardly, shoved out of the way for storage. But it was recognizably the halls of a museum. At one point, the guide opened a large wooden double door and we beheld a large, high-ceilinged, beautiful though dusty and dilapidated gallery. Hung on the walls, very impressively, were an astounding collection of bird paintings, many original Audubons, and others by artists new to me but obviously of the highest skill. This room had been closed, they said, for decades, the paintings unseen, a dusty tomb for some time. I'm pleased to see that this Audubon Gallery has reopened, fully restored. And it's wonderful, those paintings really are fine and I'm sure the restoration is great - but I confess I'm kind of glad I saw it when it was a deeply surprising secret.

Then we made our way somehow (long time ago) to the bird collections. Thousands and thousands of bird skins - whole birds, with the insides taken out - are in the collection there. They're stored in various containers - some steel lockers reminiscent of gym class, some shallow drawers like slide trays in an old news office, and some really old wooden cabinets, card-catalog-like. They had pulled out special birds for us to see - the world's largest bird, the world's smallest. A bower bird. Other things I can't recall. At one point she pointed to a duck skin, and talked about how this duck was the far-nothernmost duck species - could we guess what it was? We guessed Eider. She said "look at the label. Who collected it?" So we picked up the old-school paper tag, and read off it "Adm. Peary." Whoa! The whole breadth and depth of the institution rushed at me in that moment. This effort to comprehend the natural world in full detail, reaching through history and to all regions to gather and catalogue living things.

The researchers' office was a tiny cubby room with a couple of windows looking out onto Manhattan. The desks and file cabinets were piled so high with specimen cases, folders, and books that it looked like a funhouse maze. There were loads and loads of old dot-matrix printer printouts in huge reams -- this was field data and the researchers were trying to deal with it. I note with some amusement looking at their website now that they say in the Verterbrate Division writeup: "The last decade has seen many improvements in the Division’s data management.... Ornithology initiated databasing this year." The researchers were easygoing and funny and complained good-humoredly, like all museum staff do, about how little money and resources they had.

The whole thing was utterly transformative. It was definitely one of the important moments in my life that made me think museums were very special, in ways that schools, churches, and retail stores just weren't. And I still ponder that stuff today. In some places, like the AMNH and the Field and the Smithsonians, the venerability of the museum has its own power. This one really is a monumental place, and because it's old and somewhat quirky, endlessly fascinating - even more so in the back of the house than in the organized, presentable front.

And, to lend more perspective, not one of the cases or rooms in the story or in the photograph set looked like the same ones I got to tour. They are clearly in entirely separate sections, or wings. The place is so big.

Thanks for posting. I love remembering that story and seeing that others are hit in the same way by some of these experiences. The photographer's observations are so interesting and so visual-arty - she brings her own sight to it, commenting on repetition, and sets, and variation, and contrast, and materials. As did the writer, as did I. I can't help but wonder how many such moments of conversion have been experienced by writers, students, scholars, and hobbyists over the years - and how many other lives have changed as a result, like filaments of steel aligning as they encounter a magnetic field.
posted by Miko at 8:59 PM on February 12, 2009 [6 favorites]

Just amazing. Thank you for this!
posted by you're a kitty! at 9:30 PM on February 12, 2009

Fascinating, thanks. Just a note about another natural history museum "back room"-- the Field Museum of Chicago does regular "members nights" where they open the labs and storage areas to members. I have taken my kids to see beetles eating the flesh off specimens, and got to draw nearly microscopic bugs with a camera obscura, talked to scientists in their labs and offices, held live snakes, bugs, and assorted amphibians, watched artists designing and creating exhibitions, talked to archivists about how artifacts are selected for exhibit, seen a mummy unwrapped and opened drawer upon drawer upon drawer of specimens. When my kids were small and we first started going, the event hadn't really caught on and there would be only a few hundred people there, which a museum the size of the Field absorbs without a burp. The museum eventually caught on to the marketing goldmine they had and started promoting it agressively; it's now enormous, but still well worth the price of membership. If you're ever in town during one of these events, find a member so you can attend.

As Miko says, a museum is a T.A.R.D.I.S.-- bigger on the inside than it is on the outside.
posted by nax at 5:02 AM on February 13, 2009 [2 favorites]

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