Three, Four or Many Encounters at the Museum of Natural History

Short Essay


Figure 1. Whale construction in process. We can tell the whale was constructed in pieces and held together.

Among the big names of New York City museums, the American Museum of Natural History wins my most unfamiliarity. In a humid afternoon, I found myself in front of the Milstein Hall of Ocean Life at the American Museum of Natural History. Before this very moment, I walked through the museum gift shop, where the glaring florescent lights brought the displayed goods even brighter. Printed T-shirts, furry mammal toys, plastic games, dinosaur miniatures, even the ore pieces were put on sale, drew enthusiastic customers for a discovery… A sudden uneasiness and back to reality, when I suddenly delved into this room under a dark bluish ambient. Moving images of changing ocean water was projected on the ceiling. This is the ocean world. A giant blue creature approached me with a mysterious glee. I felt welcomed. As an exchange, I shared him my amity with a tiny smile. One instant after I realized his hospitality is not loyal to me solely. He greeted everybody unselectively. On a little tag on the railing, I learned it used to be an Elomeryx, an “even-toed ungulate” and walked like a hippopotamus.

A group of my peer human species gathered below his belly. Accompanying with the field of intermittent human voices was undulating sounds of artificial narratives. Followed the stairs to the lower floor I noticed what attracted the crowd was a big electric screen below where I entered, not the convivial blue whale. On the screen, two researchers studied naturally dissected whale remains, scanned and denoted its functional organs. “How’s this specimen?” One researcher asked. There was this piece came from the area near the whale’s hearing organ. “Would you just, hold it in place?” Another pledged. This piece of bone was set up safely on an x-ray bed like a vulnerable patient, and was pulled along the bed from one end to another. The scanned x-ray image was later analyzed and modeled into 3d. At the end of the video it was the animation of the 3d bone remain rotated and indicated with different colors for the relative functions it belongs. This image of the tiny bone stayed in my head so that when I looked up, it matched onto the blue whale above, rotated and changed colors by itself. A slight dizziness came from the hyperreal whale’s body blurred with the virtual image. After lingering a few seconds, I managed to drag my body to one corner of the hall. This turned out to be another disquieting move. I found myself engaged into one enclave after another, with columns on the side walls differentiating separate experiences. The enclaves were contained within glass chambers, each absorbs and fixes attentions into a different universe. Scenes of a group of animals, each was captured in their perfect activities: hunting, chasing, diving, and a peek of peaceful affections. In one chamber, five or six walruses were represented with great detail. A reflexive coating was applied for the resemblance of skin texture. Standing furs were added for realistic depiction. The background was painted with balmy skies and cheerful seagulls. Occasionally, a dimmed beacon afar disclosed a possible existence of humans. As I passed one glass chamber where a sea lion drifted aimlessly, along were utterances of various pitches: “adorable”, “lovely” or simply, “cute”.

The upper floor was where ocean species were shown individually. Ancient to contemporary, plastic specimens were pinned up to the wall, explained with cartoonish diagrams, linking various species based on kinships. Painted, coated, 3d printed, glued together, either the still existing or the extinct sea creatures were all composed here under a genetic symphony. Dotted light bulbs embedded these translucent bodies to highlight super organs devoid in the human world: super eyesights, luring beacons, toxic jaws, suction tubes, etc. Salps, siphonophores, and invertebrates and were illuminated under their supple bodies. The museum is like a vertical Disney hall of ocean fame. Miniature habitats once again attracted human attentions, showing sections of ecosystems: Kelp forests, rocky shore of ocean edge, algae forest, seagrass beds and mangrove forests. Each rendered with great effort. Plastic sheet inserted as surface water, rubber and sand molded as rocks and soil, coated white foam as icebergs. These elements were recomposed into the mini ecosystems. In accompanying with them were descriptions and explanatory diagrams or cartoons at the back wall, which were superimposed on another layer, creating additional information. Towards the end of the tour, I stopped at the glass chamber in the middle of the upper floor. Inside was oddly empty, with still water surface covered with patched prairies. After a careful reading of the instructions I learned it corresponded vertically to the downstairs “Choral Forest” chamber. The quiet water surface is to contrast with the biodiversity of the underwater world I passed by earlier. Alas, a two-story diorama! In this way, it fools me with its simplicity and maneuvered my recent stored memory. A great manipulator.

Figure 2. People dinning under the blue whale at the opening of the Hall of Ocean Life in 1969.

Today, I visited Milstein Hall of Ocean Life at the American Museum of Natural History. Here, sea creatures were mimicked, personified, dissected and analyzed on display, and people were lured, dazed, captivated, and projected. However, it was an afternoon with great involvement. When I finally walked out of the museum, the darkness devoured me, and the humid air starts to taste like salt.