Ten Great Science Museums: Carnegie Museum of Natural History

By John Edgar Wideman|Monday, November 01, 1993
On the phone my mother tells me she’s afraid to walk the streets of her neighborhood. My mother is tough and not a complainer, so it distresses me to hear the trouble in her voice, to hear her recount how many young black men died over the weekend in Pittsburgh, adding them to the total body count she doesn’t remember exactly, probably doesn’t want to remember exactly, so the sum of the dead is a stutter, a sigh, a deep unsayable silence between us on the line. Is it gangs, I ask, drugs and gangs, the predictable, deadly mix working its way across the country like a runaway virus. Some of it seems to be gangs, she answers, and some is just meanness and killing and God knows what’s happening to these kids, what’s in their minds.

As the killing and violent crime jump out of black neighborhoods and ignite flash fires all over the city--a rash of convenience-store holdups, drive-by shootings, a downtown, wild-West car chase with bullets flying, imperiling innocent bystanders--the city recoils. Nobody’s safe, nobody’s in control. Born out of frustration and anger, desperate means are considered--curfews, wholesale roundups, more and more cops. Nothing seems to help, and against a background of severe economic recession, the will to deal with the emergency is further eroded by lack of resources.

I hang up the phone and sit very still. The cityscape unfolds. I visualize the streets, 600 miles away, my mother’s afraid to walk, imagine the city cracking into fragments, into islands where a brutal law and order rules, abandoned turf, zones where no one wants to live but they have no choice, so inhabiting these areas is like being incarcerated. Pittsburgh has always been a city of distinct enclaves, sometimes organized around the naturally divisive topography of hills and rivers, sometimes divided by custom, by prejudice, the hard realities of class, race, religion. But in contrast to the Pittsburgh I recall from childhood, in this new vision revealing itself to me there is no way to get from here to there, no flow or exchange or communication from one section to another. Fear locks people in. Violence enforces the separation. No trolley connects Homewood to Oakland. Homewood schoolchildren don’t arrive excited, nervous, awed by the monumental facade of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. Things truly have fallen apart. There is no cultural center like Oakland where all kinds of people can mingle, reconnect with each other and with themselves.

Culture is not mindless accumulation of some laundry list of objects or people or styles somebody else has intimidated us into accepting.

Culture is a way of locating yourself in the world, a world that doesn’t make much sense without a conscious, active, continuous process of orientation, learning, accommodation.

Of all the good stuff I remember about elementary school field trips to the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, what remains most striking is the long hall full of dinosaur fossils. Giant, lizard-headed Tyrannosaurus rex rearing up at one entrance, the pterodactyls and mammoths and fish fossils, the mountainous Brontosaurus stretching from peanut head to tip of tail nearly the whole length of the gallery. Gradually over the years I’d learn the names of these creatures, memorize their vital statistics, and they’d be a reference point for measuring every other living thing, from other little boys to pro football tackles, the rest of my life. Before that growing scientific curiosity, however, came the mad dashes through the dark dinosaur hall.

The protocol of field trips was for grade-schoolers to be led through the museum in orderly packs presided over by teachers and staff. Of course, the first challenge for some of us became separating ourselves from the group. Knowing we’d pay later only added spice. The building’s immense scale, the incredible variety of exhibits, the lifelike quality of the dioramas, and the endless nooks and crannies and hideouts meant you could improvise, spontaneously create your own adventure. The longer you stayed away from the others, wandering on your own, the more intoxicated, empowered you felt. This was no ordinary world where everyday rules obtained. If you stared long enough, intently enough, the raccoon poised above the rushing stream would snatch the trout flaunting itself dangerously close to the surface. Lions attacking the Arab merchant on his camel would roar. Yes, there were wires and mirrors and seams showing, but the tricks were magical enough to earn the benefit of the doubt.

From the second and third floor balconies you could peer down on the hall of bones. You’d know when you’d stayed away from your classmates long enough because you’d hear them gathering, the roll called below you, maybe even your own name echoing. Then it was time to go. To release the hostage you’d made of yourself.

One last bit of timing was crucial. The school crowd must be nearly at the far end of the fossil gallery, ready to turn the corner. Then and only then you’d take off after them, at the precise moment they’d begin to disappear, so you could sprint past the dinosaurs alone, scared half to death, past the bizarre shapes, through the valley of shadows and bones, holding your breath till a scream popped out that bounced off walls and shivered in the cavernous vault. The noise of your panic and flying feet a protective storm around your head, as long necks and groping paws and razor teeth bobbed and snapped at you.

A gantlet of ancient skeletons. Of time and space unlike anything you’d experienced anywhere, anytime on Earth. It changed you. The world was different afterward. How old was old? How many strange creatures had died before the familiar ones came to life? Who made museums? Would you or somebody like you from Homewood wind up stuffed in a glass case with kids pointing at you and laughing or feeling sorry? Who killed the dead things in the museum? Was the zoo better or was this better, where animals stood still so you could learn their secrets?

No. The Carnegie Museum definitely wasn’t Homewood. Nor was it Oakland or Downtown or East Liberty. Those neighborhoods and the people in them were all real, but they’d all fit inside the museum, inside the jaws of Tyrannosaurus rex.

In the museum you were a kind of big-eyed ant scurrying around trying to store everything you could until the next visit, but larger too, as large as you needed to be to wander and discover and summon the courage to run through the hall of bones where you could be torn apart and eaten at any moment. You were more than you thought you were. There was more of you to be.

I think of a city hiding from the bigger picture the natural history museum evokes. I consider a city cracking apart, where children are deprived of the imaginative space to find their differences and similarities. I remember returning to the museum with my kids, wanting nothing to be changed, wanting to run with them from one end of the hall of bones to the other, howling. I remember being proud. This is the city where I was raised and it has preserved this communal space. While we looked for a parking space, I was a voice-over: Heinz Chapel; Cathedral of Learning, with its African Room; Soldiers and Sailors Hall, where I graduated high school; concerts in Syria Mosque; hoops in the YMHA. Communal space, civitas, agora, marketplace, bazaar, acropolis, forum.

That was then and this is now. Is my mother safe? I stare at the telephone, stare into space. The loss of one life, one black young man gunned down in the street threatens the possibility of civilization. Each of us is a natural history museum, full of collections, brimming with the potential to teach, share, be discovered. And that is what is lost, the scale by which we are diminished when we are violently cut off, walled away from one another. It took all the past to bring that lost young man, to bring us to this moment.

Under the roof of the natural history museum my sense of the past, of time was elaborated, extended; the past gained an immediacy and relevance that was frighteningly alien, daunting, but also included me. Ended and began with me. My imagination was stirred and I was on my way to becoming a citizen in a world larger than Homewood. I was lucky. I grew into manhood and passed on that experience to my children. The museum’s still there for anybody who wants to listen. I hope.
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