This past weekend, my friend was incredibly magnanimous and offered to accompany me to a visit of the American Museum of Natural History for my birthday. This friend is not a museum person, in that her mind was not necessarily built for what an Art museum has to offer, but through an extended friendship with me she has developed a love of natural history museums. Like any seven-year old you might know, she’s really just here for the dinosaurs and life dioramas.
I am totally cool with this arrangement. In the past three years I have been inside plenty of museums of various types, shapes, and prestige levels as part of pursuing my degree. This being the case, I am happy to have a bit of company on any of my excursions. Since I know my audience, when we arrived at the museum we immediately had a snack, and headed up to the fourth floor to the dinosaurs. Now, being ourselves we got off the elevator and made a series of turns to avoid the stroller set which brought us into what designed as the end of the exhibition. We would find this out later.
However, since the level of design on the fourth floor is quite divine, we felt no ill effects of our choice. The floor was completely reinstalled between 1994 and 1996, and 14 years later it still holds up with more contemporary installations around town. The fossil halls of the fourth floor are continuous loop telling the story of vertebrate evolution. The exhibits are not arranged in chronological order such as you find in other museums, but instead the fossil halls display the specimens according to evolutionary relationships. This serves to dramatically illustrate the complex branches of the tree of life, in which animals are grouped according to their shared physical characteristics. This organization schema is fantastic for the walk-and-gasp crowd which I was traveling with. We were able to work through the various halls and make the connections for ourselves, and turn to the texts to support our conclusions. There were also audio-visual booths at the end of certain branches of the exhibition which would further explain the group of animals you had just seen with video clips from the appropriate curators and scientists, also very handy for the type of museum visitor who does not wish to stop to read, but doesn’t mind being told a story. This was the very essence of informal learning.
As we did the floor backwards we ended at the Orientation Center. There is a fantastic video narrated by Meryl Streep which explains the way in which the floor is laid out, including AMNH’s involvement in pioneering a method of scientific analysis called cladistics, which is grouping by shared characteristics and ancestors. It was also a nice place to sit for a few minutes and rest our feet before we headed downstairs.
Downstairs is unfortunately where things went a bit awry. We spent time working through the Primates Hall, through Eastern Woodlands Indians and Plains Indians Halls which dead-end in the Margaret Mead Hall of Pacific Peoples. While all of these Halls could use an update, the walkway between the Plains Indians Hall and the Hall of Pacific Peoples perhaps irritated me the most. On the walls are various photographs from the area and Mead’s travels and they have been nearly destroyed by the hands of time and children. The majority of the labels have peeled off and there is no way to know exactly what you are looking at. This was my moment of crankiness, I was astonished at the lack of care this area of the museum was enduring beyond the normal amount of care I would expect as a museum professional, given that it is also home to the statue from Easter Island which since the movie A Night at the Museum is a photo opportunity for families and is therefore a sought out location.
After a trip though the Akeley Hall of African Mammals we continued downstairs to the second floor and the Halls of African Peoples and the Stout Hall of Asian Peoples. This is where my friend had her moment of anger. She and I attended the same high school many moons ago and received the same history and culture education. It was a step above the norm for public schools in our area, but it still left much to be desired in its covering of African and Asian peoples so we were looking forward to these Halls and had agreed to spend the time to see them even though our feet were very tired and we had another forty blocks of walking ahead of us before the end of our day.
While there is much that is fantastic in the Stout Hall (hello wedding dress from Azerbaijan) there seems to also be a hold over from a more closed off time in cultural understanding. The museum is rightly proud of the recreation of a healing ceremony performed by an Eastern Siberia Yakut shaman but around a few corners is something of which they should be quite ashamed. In a tableau which appears to be depicting the history of Isfahan in the 17th century there is a man on a flying carpet in the corner. I admit that in keeping up with a fuming mad friend I was not able to stop and read the entire label attached to this scene, but the only part of the label which could have explained this piece of the rather Aladdin-esque puzzle was that the area was known for acts of magic and romance.
Why did they do it? Why is it still there? I do not know. But, I think this in concert with the poor care shown in areas surrounding the Margaret Mead Hall of Asian Peoples we see an endemic problem in the museum community. We are not sufficiently aware that the level of care and the manner in which we keep areas up to date demonstrates to the public the respect we have for the cultures on display. As a visitor I felt that these areas were being deemed unimportant due to stereotyping in one and lack of care in the other. This is not what I want, or have other visitors, experience in a marquee name in the museum field.
Because if they do, why would they then seek out smaller museums with smaller budgets and expect different?