Monday, February 23, 2009

Mystery and Awe

In The Awe of Natural History Collections , a recent article in Seed magazine, Carl Zimmer explores the secret world that lies beyond the public's view at the American Museum of Natural History. His first visit behind the scenes left him "staring like a gob-smacked tourist," amazed at the vast collections hidden behind secret doors and in drawers and cabinets. "A natural history museum is really two museums," he says, "and when you're in one of them, you can hardly imagine the other."

I'm reminded of my own sense of awe when first entering this other world, when I started working at a natural history museum. I felt so privileged and lucky to take the elevator up past the 2nd floor, to the "Staff Only" floors, and gaze upon the wonders therein. My first day, as I approached the Paleontology department, I was greeted by five
people pushing a massive whale pelvis through the double doors; this was just an example of the type of quirky and unexpected encounters which regularly occur in a day on the job. What most people who visit natural history museums don't realize is that most of the collections are stored backstage, and are not displayed for the public. A museum's purpose may seem to be to educate and entertain the public, but much of a museum's role is in research and the collection and preservation of natural specimens.

On occasion, I find it necessary to make a foray into what the museum staff call "The Bog," an exhibit hall which once housed "The Bog People" but is now used for storage for the Paleontology department. It is filled with all manner of fossil casts, models, actual fossils (some
were collected in the 30s and 40s and are still wrapped in the original
newspaper), and a wide assortment of detritus. The Bog is dimly lit, cavernous, dusty, and deathly quiet; once you unlock the door, step inside, and close it behind you, it feels as if you've entered a tomb. The first thing you see, as your eyes adjust to the dark, is an old, 7-foot-tall dinosaur model, poised as if to attack with its talon-like claws and sharp teeth. I know it's not real, but I can't help thinking about that scene in "Jurassic Park" where the Velociraptors (those weren't really Velociraptors, by the way; Velociraptors were actually the size of small dogs) are stalking the kids, tapping their claws on the metal surfaces. I have to admit, every time I enter The Bog alone, it's scary, but the kind of delicious scare that draws people to horror movies.

Most people who work at natural history museums really like their jobs. It's one of those rare workplaces to which you never get completely accustomed, so that you never take it for granted. It would be hard to do that when you work in an office full of dinosaur bones or stuffed birds, and every day something new and different is being discovered or created. The main reminder for me of what a special job I have, is when I walk through the public parts of the museum to get to my office and see children staring excitedly at the dinosaur mounts. Every day, I get to enter the secret world of treasures behind the scenes, and I haven't lost the sense of awe yet.

Photograph by Justine Cooper; see her beautiful photographs behind the scenes at the AMNH.

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