Then and Now: A museum’s museum
June 12, 2014 | One of my earliest memories is from half a century ago and relates to something that I saw, and that astonished me, in the darkened halls of the American Museum of Natural History. I was four and my nanny was taking me-not for the first time, as I clearly recall-to the museum, a few blocks from where I grew up. On one of the upper floors, where you now see the dinosaurs, the museum displayed its gemstone and mineral collection, which was moved, about a decade later, to the ground floor. It must have been a weekday, because there was no one else in the cavernous hall. Suddenly I saw a man in a motorized wheel-chair glide by, "swifter than thought," along the terrazzo floors and disappear out a distant exit as quickly as he had come. Back then, unlike today, motorized wheelchairs were so rare that I would almost imagine they didn't exist, except that I saw one with my own eyes and have replayed the memory in my mind many times since.
Above: Mammal Hall, 1900. AMNH Digital Special Collections, Fuerman.
I was put in mind of that memory when I visited the museum's website to see the new online image database for Digital Special Collections, which includes over 7,000 photographs, many never before seen by the public. These include the Julian Dimock Collection, nearly 3,400 glass photographs from early in the last century, depicting the daily life of African Americans in South Carolina and Alabama, as well as new arrivals at Ellis Island. Also included are images documenting ethnographer Carl S. Lumholtz's expeditions to northwestern Mexico between 1890 and 1898, and the Jesup North Pacific Expedition to the peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast of North America and the eastern coast of Siberia from 1897 to 1902. One's appreciation of these images is enhanced by a charming From the Archives post, which is updated weekly.
What interests me most about the site, however, is the myriad images of the museum itself, both inside and out, as it was undergoing construction and as it looked before its spiritual transformation around the time of its centennial celebration in 1969. Type in the keyword "hall" to find these images. Today many museums (and for some reason, natural history museums most of all) are oriented to families with children. Such was not the case before the 1970s, when the American Museum of Natural History was as august a place as the Frick Collection (which to this day does not admit children under the age of ten!)
In these images, which are curiously devoid of human beings-much as the museum seemed in the memory I have described--one rediscovers, amid the dioramas of stuffed animals and the reconstructed fossil remains, all the charming simplicity of natural history museums from the Victorian era down to the Beatles first LP. There were no TV monitors back then, no recorded voices playing in an endless loop, no blinking lights and no acres of wall text. The object itself was sovereign, from the rows upon rows of amethysts and rubies in the gem collection, to the endless sequence of beetles in the entomology collection. Something of this spirit can still be glimpsed in the Museum's third floor Hall of New York State Mammals and Birds, which looks as though it has remained untouched, and almost unseen, since Holden Caulfield's last visit. Fortunately, something of the high seriousness of those vanished spaces has been re-enacted in the museum's fourth floor dinosaur halls, so elegantly reconceived about ten years ago.
In the mostly black and white images that the American Museum of Natural History has now placed before the public, younger generations will see this institution as it used to be, when it was, in many respects, very different from what it has become today.