plagued by cost overruns and the necessity of working on temporary exhibits.
"I like the change of pace they give me, but they do cut into my time. I
want to finish this thing and open," he says, as he runs to answer an
intercom phone by a fiber-glass boa constrictor. He is called away to work on a
new exhibit in a hallway. There is always something—a moon-rock special, a
gypsy moth festival, a monstrous diamond, 500,000 ants and, currently, a model
of a prehistoric flying reptile.
I LOVE THEE, I
LOVE THEE NOT
A museum visitor
expects illusion, but the most detailed and accurate illusions may be too much
for some. Of the museum's millions of displayed specimens and tableaux the most
famous are the dinosaur skeletons. They are huge and lovely to behold, and
walking around them alone at night one gets a sense of the history of the earth
in a flashlight beam. It is easy to understand the following occurrence.
"He came every
day for about six months," says Security Director Charles L. Miles. "He
was kind of nondescript, but we'd pick him up on the TV monitors every morning
with a bunch of flowers in his hand. He'd go up to the fourth floor, kneel down
at the tail of the Brontosaurus and pray and bow. He never did anyone any harm
or bother anyone, so we left him alone. One day he stopped coming. Maybe the
dinosaur stopped being God."
On Central Park
West, where the statue of a mounted, triumphant Teddy Roosevelt gazes out at
the park, his horse's reins held by an Indian chief and a freed slave, one
wonders where we all are being led. A pimpmobile peels away from the 79th
Street stoplight, for the demands of flesh never stop; an office-pale New
Yorker struts by, the trout on his tie heaving to get out of this mayhem and
back to the stream; across the street in the seductive wilds of Central Park
the password is "hands up!" The world can appear seamy and soiled to
the museum visitor who has just emerged from the ordered presentation of
natural history. But the world is hot and it is going on, and who'd rather be
in a museum when the hot-dog man wheels his cart up and girls are walking
around on legs that are real.
What the museum
with its vast collections, its brilliant staff and its perfect replicas cannot
do is give us that immediacy about the past we crave. In the Hall of Man in
Africa, a diorama of Pokot warriors around a cow, bleeding its neck into a
gourd to mix with milk, is a period piece, a Victorian stereoscopic view of
life on earth, but it cannot give us the interminable heat, the sound of flies,
the odor of dung and yaws. And if a real lion wanders onto the scene, then what
missing, and one wants to sleep next to breathing dinosaurs, not their bones.
This is the leap of imagination, and it is the business of art, not science.
The artist's creative leap into history is what we crave. Like the deep
feelings that ran through a man like Carl Akeley, what's needed is to kill a
leopard with one's bare hands, and when one treks into the sunset it should
lead to the immensity of the stars, not a painted backdrop.