I was 17 years old the first time I entered the American Museum of Natural History in New York. I knew nothing about its layout or holdings at the time, so it was pure serendipity that led me to one of the lower levels on Central Park West. There I drifted into a small, quiet gallery and stood in front of a display of microscopic invertebrates, the creatures that inhabit the minute wetlands of our lives. Whisker-perfect glass models of rotifers and protozoans shone from their display case. Vastly enlarged for the exhibit, they’re actually single-celled organisms that live in lakes, ponds, puddles, on damp soil, in mosses, between sand grains on beaches, and even in small depressions in rocks. Protozoans also live in or on most animals as parasites or symbionts. Some are colonial; some are phosphorescent. One was shaped like the lunar landing module, another the gem-encrusted tiara of Queen Elizabeth, yet another a Christmas tree ornament. Others resembled snowflakes, Amazon trees with their root systems exposed, jellyfish trailing Gothic church spires.
Relishing their intricacy and variety, I felt so startled by joy that my eyes teared. It was a spiritual experience of power and clarity, limning the wonder and sacredness of life, life at any level, even the most remote. Since then, I have often been touched by the cathedrallike architecture of the microscopic. The world around us is packed with marvels, though they may be invisible to the naked eye: creatures that are unimaginably complex, breathtakingly frail, and yet filled with the self- perpetuating energy we call life. As tiny and fragile as these life-forms are, they survive hurricanes, earthquakes, and the casual chaos of human feet. I wasn’t worrying then about what protozoans can do to one’s digestive system, just feeling saturated by wonder. Only praise leapt to mind, praise that knows no half-truth and pardons all. I felt what Walt Whitman may have when he wrote of the starry night, The bright suns I see and the dark suns I cannot see are in their place. His intuition bespeaks the cryptic faith in the unknown and the extrapolation of belief that organized religions require. The part stands for the whole, as it does in natural history museums that say, in effect, Here is one wildebeest on the savanna, but there are many more of them, it’s part of a species. Trust in it.
What is a natural history museum? It’s a silent oasis in the noisy confusion of the world, isolating phenomena so that they can be seen without distraction. In that sense, it is not the artifacts themselves that are being collected but the undivided attention of the visitors. That is the museum. Its greatest treasure is the perpetuation of wonder in a maelstrom of social and personal preoccupations. Collection is a good word for what happens. One becomes collected for a spell, gathering up one’s curiosity the way rainwater collects on the roofs of Caribbean homes. Every museum is really a museum of one’s high regard. I think that’s why we visit them so often, even though we know the holdings by heart. The visit functions as a sort of pilgrimage and vigil. Museums are where we store some of our favorite attitudes about life.
I’ve been back to the American Museum of Natural History many times since that first teenage visit, and I drop in on it now as I would an old friend. I admire the building as much as I do the collection, as the two work in concert. The ceilings are drafty and high, the galleries lead through many mazes and levels. For instance, to get from the invertebrates to the Hall of Minerals and Gems you must first pass through North American Forests and Meteorites--with perhaps a side trip to see the carvings of the Northwest Coast Indians, Mollusks, or the 94-foot-long blue whale in the Hall of Ocean Life. I’ve always found the meandering layout to be appropriate, since curiosity needs to rise and fall through many elevations and troughs. It’s like prowling around a huge attic in which the trunks and scrapbooks have been opened up. No sooner are you fascinated by the ancestors of the horse than you become distracted by totem poles. In the Hall of Minerals and Gems I usually pause at the colossal slabs of jade and amethyst, the apricot topaz the size of an ox head, the cluster of black azurite crystals (some of them five inches long) that is considered to be the finest mineral specimen in existence, and the Fabergé menagerie of exquisitely carved gems, including an agate pig with ruby eyes and carnelian teats.
Then I make a beeline for the opals, whose gorgeous kaleidoscopes fascinate me. They are only a form of wet sand, I remind myself, with light skidding among the particles of silica and the spaces between them. And yet they flash lightning bolts of color. I know how they do it but am still perpetually amazed by them. Next to the opals are open clamshells, shining with their iridescent glaze. In each one, pearls have been formed by the coating of stray grit with a smooth, gemlike luster. Sperm whales produce ambergris in a similar way to hide jagged annoyances (squid beaks and such). Both result in great beauty, and I love looking at them because they are a Zen-like reminder that there are many ways to deal with irritations.
The new Hall of Human Biology and Evolution is bound to be one of my favorites. In a set piece at the entrance, two skeletons greet one another. One is standing, the other crouching above. You take a second look and the anatomy of one becomes clear: short thighs, big pelvis, barrel chest, long arms. Oh, that one’s not human, you think. The pair are alike, but different. This duet of females--human and gorilla--sets the mood for what will follow, placing humans in the natural world and in time. Videos, interactive computers, and traditional dioramas lead one from DNA down the meandering trail of evolution. There we are as glorified squirrels 65 million years ago, at the beginning of the age of mammals. There we are in a collage of contemporary human faces. A hologram woman now replaces the see-through visible woman that once stood in the museum’s former Hall of the Biology of Man. Floating in three dimensions, the hologram reveals her innards in luminous green, blue, yellow, and red. The last thing you see as you leave the hall are scenes from the cave art at Altamira and Lascaux.
But one diorama in particular haunts me, and I know I will often be returning to it: a full-size, startlingly lifelike Lucy and her mate walk upright across Tanzania. Based partly on scientific fact and partly on educated guesswork, these models are deeply evocative. Our prehuman relatives (Australopithecus afarensis), they had about the same brain size as chimpanzees and were probably very human in their stance and movements. A volcanic eruption in the background is coating the landscape with white ash; as the prehumans walk across the savanna they leave a trail of footprints behind them. Lucy’s head is turned left--she seems startled by us. She does not know what she will become. Glancing to the right, her mate has his arm around her shoulder in a familiar gesture of human tenderness. Are these protohumans really so like us? How do they court? Do they love? What worries them? Do they imagine a future? What delights their senses? How do they comfort their young? I long to meet them face-to-face, to reach through time and space and touch them. It is like recognizing one’s kin across the street in a bustling city.
As I migrate from room to room, happily grazing, I also like knowing what lies behind the exhibits--the large natural history library, the endless research laboratories. A host of people set out on and return from expeditions to remote places, where they gladly endure hardships for the all-too-human privilege of being able to recover, explore, observe, map, take to bits, or dig up something amazing. A hologram of the body of the museum would no doubt show them in radiant purple as one of the key systems.
If a museum’s purpose is to be an accumulation, then it can only ever fail. But if its purpose is to give a sense of family and neighborhood, then it will succeed by being incomplete. There will be sections straight as a narrative, all sorts of portraits, histories, and souvenirs, and many curios. Studied separately, they will fascinate; and, taken together, they will give a small sense of the vast jigsaw puzzle of life. In the jargon of the space-faring people we have become, natural history museums offer us a contingency sample of life on Earth.