New York Magazine's great Intel interview column always concludes with the same question: "What makes a person a New Yorker." (Pharrell Williams: "The will to make it.") For me, the mark of a true native is the ability to navigate the Museum of Natural History without a map. If you can make it to the Hall of Minerals from the Hall of African Mammals without a plan or a wrong turn, you're a real New Yorker.
The place is famously labyrinthine—what other museum has three primary entrances?—and there are parts of it that seem both lost and frozen in time, which is part of its appeal. It's been this way for generations. Here's Holden Caulfield, in Salinger's 1951 classic: “The best thing, though, in that museum was that everything always stayed right where it was. Nobody’d move. You could go there a hundred thousand times, and that Eskimo would still be just finished catching those two fish, the birds would still be on their way south, the deers would still be drinking out of that water hole, with their pretty antlers and their pretty, skinny legs, and that squaw with the naked bosom would still be weaving that same blanket."
You can make a pretty compelling argument for keeping a small museum exactly as its creator left it (see the debate about the Barnes Museum, or this recent conversation about the restoration of the Glass House), but a massive museum dedicated to natural history—science—is another thing altogether. Maintaining heritage at the AMNH is tricky business. A couple of weeks ago, walking through the place with my daughter, we noticed that the extraordinary dioramas—painted under the direction of James Perry Wilson—in the Hall of North American Mammals were closed up for renovation. Fear not, though: it is a restoration project. The displays, which are dusty and a bit moth-eaten, should be even more of a revelation once this work is done.
But what should be done with the mural of Mecca and the Kaaba, which is tucked into a small gallery in the Hall of Asian Peoples? Educating the public about Islam seems like a more important (and politically loaded) business than ever, but the mural is an antiquated timepiece. Today's Mecca is being transformed by massive construction projects. So what's it to be?
In many of its new displays and exhibitions, the museum takes advantage of whiz-bang technology, sometimes to a fault. Maybe I'm old-fashioned, or romanticizing my youth, but I miss the old Hayden Planetarium, and its giant Zeiss Mark VI projector. These days, when every kid has a home theater with a 3D screen (or at least every theater is 3D equipped), there's something to be said for the magic to be found in an old mechanical wonder. You get that tactile sense from the museum's Butterfly Conservatory, a jewel of functional architecture designed by Nick Leahy, of Perkins Eastman, who is a friend. Last week, we travelled together with our families to the New York Hall of Science, in Queens, where Charles and Ray Eames's Mathematica exhibit, originally created for IBM in the 1960s, is on permanent display. It's a masterpiece of lo-fi installation design, not a screen to be found, just clear, hands-on exhibits that illustrate concepts with creativity and without pandering.
The day after our visit, my daughter wanted to return.