SI Vault
J. D. Reed
April 28, 1975
The place to bone up on Tyrannosaurus rex, the Texas pterosaur and other elephantine wonders surely is the American Museum of Natural History, a showcase with more than a few skeletons in its Manhattan closets
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April 28, 1975

Up In Nature's Attic

The place to bone up on Tyrannosaurus rex, the Texas pterosaur and other elephantine wonders surely is the American Museum of Natural History, a showcase with more than a few skeletons in its Manhattan closets

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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.

Marianne Moore, 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 literally that.

"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."

Another completed 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 cement."

Museum habitat 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.

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