American Museum of Natural History

Edification value  
Entertainment value  4/5
Should you go?  
Time spent 168 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned Who am I kidding.  I’m pondering, “What’s my favorite thing at AMNH?” when there’s no way I would pick anything besides the dinosaurs.  Triceratops was my favorite as a kid. Undoubtedly were I cooler I would’ve picked a carnivore.  But whatever.  Triceratops it is.

American Museum of Natural History, New York

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has this to say about space. 

‘Space,’ it says, “is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly hugely mindbogglingly big it is. I mean you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist, but that’s just peanuts to space.

I quote that not because the American Museum of Natural History is home to the Hayden Planetarium, a great place to learn about space.  Although it is. Instead I quote it because at 111,000 square meters (1.2 million square feet), the American Museum of Natural History is big.  Really big.  You just won’t believe how vastly hugely mindbogglingly big it is.

American Museum of Natural History, New York
Hayden Planetarium

And yet, whereas space is mostly utterly empty, so empty that stars and galaxies and planets and museums and all lesser matter is basically a rounding error on the emptiness of the vacuum, the American Museum of Natural History is almost always totally full.  Of kids and harried parents.

Mindbogglingly full.  All sucked in by the vast gravity of its impressive, unparalleled displays of taxidermied animals, dinosaur fossils, the wonders of space, gems, minerals and meteorites, artifacts and every other thing scientific-type people have sorted, classified and analyzed over the past century and change.

One might expect it to collapse under its own gravity into some sort of kid-filled black hole.  Fortunately for Upper West Side property values, that hasn’t happened.  Yet.

The Museum of Museums

American Museum of Natural History, New YorkFor a museumologist, the American Museum of Natural History fascinates.  Parts of it are state of the art.  Those sections come chock-full of the latest in touch screens, pithy texts, beautiful visual design, and other contemporary pedagogical technologies.  

But other parts just aren’t.  Within the walls of AMNH you can find examples of “state of the art” museum design from practically any decade of the past half century or more.

Even the exterior presents a haphazard jumble of architecture including:

  • A turreted castle on West 77th Street;
  • A neo-Classical Beaux Arts memorial (to naturalist, statesman, and hero Theodore Roosevelt) on Central Park West;
  • Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Spaceship of the Mind, come to rest in a giant proto-Apple glass cube on West 81st Street;
  • And over twenty assorted other, less noteworthy buildings chunked in here and there.

In With the Old…

Its many mini-museum time capsules comprise some of the most interesting parts of the American Museum of Natural History.

American Museum of Natural History, New YorkFor example, AMNH has a long, winding hall describing–in excruciating detail– agriculture in the New York region.  Its wood paneling and outdated typefaces (cursive?!) and mind-numbingly long wall texts feel like the…1950s?  1960s?  Whenever people last commonly spelled maple syrup, “sirup.” Definitely a time when agriculture didn’t have concerns about fertilizer runoff polluting seas or global warming shifting the upstate cash crop from apples to pineapples in a few decades.

American Museum of Natural History, New YorkThe anthropological halls verge on possibly offensive. I expect there’s already a campaign against them as racist or Euro-American-centric. But they have an innocence to them, too.  And they have much to teach.  For example, there are shrunken heads on display in the far reaches of the Amazonia hall.  I didn’t even think those were real — for years now I’ve assumed they were just made up.

Check out this vastly magnified mosquito model that dates to around 1900.  It apparently confuses the kids; I overheard a conversation between two tweens/teens who surmised that at some point in the past they really came in that size.

American Museum of Natural History, New York
Creepy megafauna

I was crushed to learn that AMNH is currently renovating its Hall of Gems and Minerals. (Expected to re-open in 2019.) That space looked like something out of 1970s science fiction architecture, all darkness, carpeting, and conversation pits in  strange spacey shapes.  I will miss its anachronism.

American Museum of Natural History, New York
The Lure of Asia…

And In With the New

For all of the tributes to the Ghosts of Museums Past, much of AMNH is cutting-edge.

American Museum of Natural History, New YorkThe Rose Center for Earth and Space features beautifully modern exhibits to match its architecture. It elegantly teaches about the powers of 10 and the scale of the universe (the giant globe in the center of the glass cube plays different roles: sometimes it’s the sun, sometimes it’s a cell, sometimes a single atom.  

The Rose Center’s timeline of the universe enables visitors to stride across the eons, billions of years from the Big Bang to the present down a gently curving spiral.  Hey, another ramp-based museum display!  But one that works in the right direction.

American Museum of Natural History, New York
The lavas of my youth

The Gottesman Hall of Planet Earth succinctly explains plate tectonics, vulcanism, the formation and transformation of rocks, all with massive chunks of stone and mineral to look at.  All in a way that feels very contemporary.

I also liked a simple display in a random hallway, mainly text and clever graphics, describing cutting-edge learning about the microbiome. That is, all the bacteria and what-not that turn out to be a surprisingly large portion of “us.” Very probiotic.

Although it’s a little older, the Spitzer Hall of Human Origins holds up very well too.

American Museum of Natural History, New York
Lucy in the museum with fossils

In a deep way, then, AMNH is an archaeological museum.  It is built up stratigraphically, newer museums layered on top of old. That makes it a unique blend of museum eras and approaches to science and storytelling. Visiting it makes you Indiana Jones or Lara Croft, intrepidly exploring a temple of knowledge.  Albeit one with gift shops instead of booby traps.

I  suppose AMNH’s curators update as fast as they can, subject to fundraising needs and just keeping the place going.  But at the same time, I like the quirkiness, and I hope it always retains some of it.

Lots of Dead Animals

American Museum of Natural History, New York
Old-school dino reconstructions

The dinosaur halls, last renovated in the early 1990s, are also out-of-step with the times. Some of that was deliberate: the museum retained some anachronistic mounting of fossils and some models that even in the ’90s no longer matched what we thought dinosaurs looked like.  You almost never see the contemporary-cool, freaky feathered versions at AMNH.  And yet, I doubt there’s a more dramatic reconstruction in any museum than the Barosaurus defending its baby from an Allosaurus in the main rotunda.  It’s mind-boggling, theatrical science at its best.

American Museum of Natural History, New York
I need a wider angle  lens

Many of AMNH’s other greatest hits could also be lumped together under the rubric of “dead animals.”  

The many dioramas are amazing works of art.  And artifacts of museum-ology in their own right. I can’t imagine any museum being able to construct them today; certainly not with real specimens. They are kind of like going to the zoo or on safari, except you don’t have to worry about the weather or sleepy animals or hippo maulings or dengue fever.

American Museum of Natural History, New York

One of my favorite contemporary photographers, Hiroshi Sugimoto, got his start making extremely long-duration pictures of the AMNH dioramas in black and white. His images almost make it appear that he was photographing in the wild, with extremely amazing good fortune in terms of framing and somehow not getting eaten.  I can’t do that with an iPhone, but I still feel pride for my lions.

There’s a life-sized fiberglass blue whale, too.  And many other charismatic megafauna.  Often presented as dioramas, but in the dustier sections just as-is: cases and cases of dead stuffed critters of all types.

It’s worth observing that where the Staten Island Museum makes do with one-third of a fake mastodon, AMNH has a whole one, and a mammoth to boot.

American Museum of Natural History, New York
Mammoth!

Finally, just in case all the dead animals start to seem morbid or depressing, AMNH also currently has a special exhibition packed full of live butterflies.

Concluding Thoughts

American Museum of Natural History, New York
The most charismatic (and most mega) megafauna of them all

The American Museum of Natural History probably deserves a perfect score.  However, I’m subtracting one Met button because I consider Dr. Tyson personally responsible for demoting Pluto, and I have not forgiven him, or his institution, for that.  I admit it’s vindictive museum rating. Vengeance for Pluto at last!  Nevertheless, everyone should brave the crowds and the kids and go anyway.  There’s no better place in New York to experience the wonder of the world and the joy of science.

When you go, pick your battles.  Don’t even try to see all of it in one go.  I tend to skip the anthropological sections, they really are quite a bit behind the times. The Met’s encyclopedic presentation of the art of non-Western cultures works much better to me.  You may feel differently.

Finally, note that the AMNH permanent exhibits are pay-what-you-will.  You can check out the dinosaurs and the whale for just a buck if you want to.  However, if you want to see any special exhibitions, you’re locked in paying full price.  It’s worth it.

American Museum of Natural History, New York

For Reference:

Address Central Park West and West 79th Street, Manhattan
Website amnh.org
Cost  General Admission:  $23 recommended (special exhibitions cost extra and require paying full price)
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