Helmut Sommer is
in charge of the osteology lab, a room that smells like a rural morgue. "We
have an efficient system," he says. In a small tiled room, kept at a
constant 85�, are several wooden boxes. Sommer removes the top of one. Inside,
thousands of beetles are patiently cleaning an alligator skull. "They'll
have it totally stripped of flesh in 24 hours," he says. "If a man did
a small skeleton like those rats over there on the tray, he would crush a lot
of cartilage before getting all the flesh off. But the beetles are meticulous,
and we end up with a fully articulated skeleton." For big jobs, like a
whole lion, there is a bathtub. "We just soak them overnight in cold water
and then start right in. The problem with the beetles, though, is that they
don't take a day off. We have walk-in freezers now to store up specimens, so we
can keep the beetles happier and not have to feed them our lunch if they are
out of work."
There are 36 major
exhibition halls in the museum; from the Dinosaur Halls, to Man in Africa, to
Oceanic Birds, they are thought-provoking displays. Three million visitors plod
and prance through the museum yearly, half of them children.
Eugene Bergmann is
one of two museum-hall designers. A Pratt Institute graduate of industrial
design, he "couldn't see myself designing display booths for sparkplugs at
trade fairs." So Bergmann came to the museum seven years ago and from that
day to this has been working on one major project—the new Hall of Reptiles.
"The architectural layout was already developed when I arrived," he
says, "and the hall won't be completed for another year and a half."
The problem is the slow pace at which the scientist-overseers, the artists and
the technicians must work. The whole range of reptile biology will be exhibited
in 14-by-16-foot glass cases.
In one case that
is completed, three Komodo dragon lizards that grow to 10 feet are doing
typically dragon things. One monster bays, making what one imagines as dragon
noises. Another merely looks ugly and terrifying, staring at the viewer. The
most active individual in the tableau is chowing down a dead wild boar.
the poet, once described the problem of illusion in art by saying it was like
"putting real toads in imaginary gardens." Bergmann's problem is quite
"See the flies
on that boar?" the designer says. "They are not real, not from the
mounted insect collection. They are not even real fakes. We stylized them
because they are far enough away from the viewer to seem real. But the dragons
are authentic, collected years ago, before the lizards became an endangered
species. We will make that distinction on a sign."
case is of giant sea turtles. "The turtles themselves are fiberglass
shells," Bergmann says, "but the grasses, sand and the raccoon waiting
there to get the eggs the turtles are laying are real. They were collected in
Florida in a habitat much like this one and brought back in a U-Haul truck. See
where the sand is pushed up in waves by the flippers? Sand won't stay that way,
it will settle, so we spray the sand with diluted glue, making it hard as
groups have changed as our ways of understanding and viewing reality have
changed. The museum displays that we are used to are ones in which the viewer
looks through a plate glass window at a set scene: a mountain lion (stuffed)
sitting on a rock (real), regarding a vast valley (painted background) covered
with snow (boric acid salts). It is a fixed view of life, as still and unreal,
though the detail is accurate, as though it were made by a child.
In this new hall,
however, the huge glass cases are six-sided so that viewers look at the
glutting dragon from all sides. This meal is taking place right out in the
open. Those things could come to life and walk right through the Pittsburgh
Plate into your lap.