The Fullness of a Moment

Half a century ago, the Hall of New York State Environment in the American Museum of Natural History was not only the future of museum design, but also, one man hoped, the future of democracy itself.

Jaime Green | Longreads | January 2016 | 24 minutes (6,058 words)

 

here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life;which grows
higher than soul can hope or mind can hide

— E. E. Cummings, “[i carry your heart with me(i carry it in]

The study of natural history is, literally, the study of life –
life as it was, as it is, and as it will be.

— F. Trubee Davison, “American Museum of Natural History 1949 Annual Report

* * *

Most everything in the American Museum of Natural History is from another place or time: fossils from extinct creatures, rocks from space or deep within the earth, the yearly hot-house of butterflies sipping nectar and dodging toddlers in the midst of wintry New York. This seems to be what the museum is for. But in one hall of the museum, the artifact from the past is a bit of the museum itself: Like a time capsule of sorts, though it almost seems like they’ve forgotten that it’s there.

In this hall, everything is contained neatly in its frame. Little boxed windows, little farm scenes, pages from a cozy picture book. The wood paneling on the wall is like your grandparents’ basement. It speaks of rec rooms, warm pile carpets, lying on your stomach playing with an old GI Joe. Someone found it for you, no one really knows where it came from, but you’ll play with it for hours while the grownups are upstairs. This hall has no rec room carpet, just speckly brown tiles on the floor. And the dark wood-grain paneling on the walls is smooth and clean. This is a place for lingering; the ambient volume drops. In the busy modern museum in the busy modern city, this is a space that is quiet and and still, held in motion and time.

This is one of the very oldest bits of the museum. It hasn’t been touched in 64 years. If it were a person it would be almost old enough to retire.

It is a hall in the museum space sense—a room for exhibition and display, like the Hall of Biodiversity, the Hall of Ocean Life, the Hall of Birds of the World—but it is also a corridor, open on both ends, running along one side of the building, from the middle of the museum toward the front. At one end, this hall connects with the Grand Gallery, an empty white space with a 63-foot canoe suspended from its ceiling and an exit-only side door. At the other end it continues into the Hall of North American Forests, home to a cross-section of a 1,400-year-old Giant Sequoia, turning the visitor’s path toward the front door. This is the way toward the cafeteria and the exit. Some people will treat this hall as a hallway, a place to walk through on their way to something else. Ignore them. There are things here worth seeing; you just have to have patience for the fact that they will be unremarkable and small. Important things are often unremarkable and small.

Above the entrance to the hall, elegant silver letters say: “Hall of New York State Environments” (although “environment” is singular on the museum map). This is the last font matching the modern museum you will see for a while. Leave the big white space of the Grand Gallery behind and enter. Walk beneath this sign. The ceiling gets lower, the light gets dimmer, and the cool airy space of the museum cozily closes in.

The first thing you see is a diorama. “An October Afternoon Near Stissing Mountain.” Two hills slope to a placid lake with fire-bright foliage all around. Short, spindly, red-leaved bushes and rocks hide a creeping fox, and a bluebird is suspended a moment before landing in the red foliage of a maple sapling. A caterpillar hunches on a branch. On the painted backdrop, just a few feet from the front of the frame, a lake leads to marshland and to the hills, mirror-flat except where troubled by the take-off or landing of two painted gray ducks. A few trees stand on islands near the shore. The sun is just starting to set, unseen, off to your right. It lights the faces of the hills in bright yellow. The fullness of an autumn moment is captured here. On the shadowed hillsides the trees are mottled red, orange, and brown. The scene is contained in a frame, but it is tall enough and wide enough that you don’t notice this border. The only bench in the hall is set in front of this vista, as if it were a real vista to take in.

Photo Courtesy: American Museum of Natural History

Photo Courtesy: American Museum of Natural History

The diorama is set at an angle to the entryway—it doesn’t stop you in your tracks, perpendicular to your path, but it doesn’t sit idly on a wall next to you, either. It ushers you in. On a wall that juts out a bit in front of you, beneath the title, “Life in the Soil,” four moments of underground life are captured. Two seasons are shown, winter and spring, once each at the “edge of woodland” and once beneath the “farmer’s lawn.” Here is the world you know; now here is the secret world under your feet. It is all small, but a life-sized small—mice and ants and a plant’s delicate roots. It invites you to spend some time, looking up close. It feels more like a dollhouse than a museum.

The hall turns around a few wide-angled corners, but it does not branch into side-rooms or chambers; there is still a path. You can’t see around the next corner, though, so the space feels even less vast. Most of the light comes from the displays set into the walls, a dimness that scales everything small, enveloping rather than expansive. The displays on your right concern the relationship between people and the land, and those on your left describe nature independent of human intervention. On the right: rotation of farm crops, the apple orchard, fertilizers in the soil. On the left: seasons in the woods, glaciation, the water cycle. It feels like nature here, not science.

The displays in this hall are not busy. Except for the first diorama, Stissing Mountain, nothing requires you to step back to take it in. The museum is not trying to impress you here. It invites you to spend time looking at something small, but then also to keep going—to read a label, to read another, to follow the little web of interconnectedness they describe. Under “Roots in the Soil” you see tree roots alongside carrots, a turnip, and an onion, familiar roots from your kitchen shown here in their secret life underground. Farther down the hall: Here is an apple; here is an apple cut in half; here is an enlarged model of an apple flower’s pistil and another of an apple seed’s embryo sac. Two dusty apples, still on the branch, are suspended above. They look like Macouns or Empires, a soft dark red. Six more apples labeled “apples from eastern New York State” sit on a shelf at the bottom of the diorama.

There is three-dimensional depth to the displays, too—cut-out boxes reveal blossoms, flowers, and little painted landscapes with little paper men and apple trees, set back behind the main surface. From far away or off to the side, these cut-out windows look like dark holes. You need to get up close to really see, and since you can only see from up close and directly in front, these are for one person at a time. When you look at them, only you can see what’s there, or only you and the person standing close next to you, maybe a small child hoisted up for the view. The crowds that fill the rest of the museum, by necessity, fall away. The orchard scenes are smaller than the screen of your computer, with little farmer men just a few inches tall. The beauty of an orchard cannot be shown in a museum; the science of an orchard, though, can.

Many things here are lovely or sweet, but almost nothing is beautiful. Nothing beautiful, nothing big, nothing cool. And nothing new. In a museum that otherwise shows visitors the most awe-inspiring science in the most modern and attention-grabbing ways, here is science of the most ordinary things in the world, the science of your humble backyard. Yet it is in the company of blue whales and cosmic wonders, this homeliest and homiest of halls.

Things here are also unbeautiful because nothing has been touched since 1951. Occasionally the displays may be dusted—very occasionally, it seems—but the neglect softly shows. A green apple meant to show something about yellow jackets has lost its bugs and acquired a fuzzy, puckered skin. A museum employee tells the tale of a Barbie doll that somehow found its way inside one display in the 1990s, perhaps a relic of a careless visitor on a behind-the-scenes tour. It stayed wedged in there for years, until a new director or department head brought a new conscientiousness to their post. Would someone get that thing out of there? Each display’s title—“Life in the Water,” “Cycle of Nutrition and Decay”—is written in a soft, mid-century cursive that leaves no question as to the decade of its origin. The only change ever made to the hall may be in the agriculture display, a relatively grand set of convex windows at the far end of the hall. A figure of a bare-breasted Indian woman holds a hoe: “The Forest Primeval.” Then “The Settlement 1790,” “The High Tide 1840,” “The Ebb 1870.” And finally a little John Deere tractor and plow with a little yellow-shirted farmer in the driver’s seat sit above a sign that says “1950.” If you look closely, though, you can see the smudged outline of the original lettering: “TODAY.”

* * *

When Albert E. Parr took office as director of the museum in June of 1942, he came with a grand mission. He believed that, for all its greatness, the museum was failing its public. “We have a great story to tell,” he wrote, “yet the simple truth of the matter is that we tell it so incredibly badly that few of the visitors ever get the idea that there is a story here at all.”

Then, as even now, halls of dioramas were the main way the museum showed visitors about the world. Parr deplored the museum’s reliance on these framed assemblages of animals—stuffed or modeled—accompanied by their native brushes and trees before a painted backdrop. They are three-dimensional snap-shots, with animals poised as if caught in a moment of life, stately or vigorous but always still, on a narrow stage that seems to extend off into the distance of a painted backdrop. You’ll find dioramas today throughout the museum, in the halls of North American, Asian, and African mammals, the Hall of Birds of the World, and the catch-all of mammals that are simply “small.” There are dioramas in the Hall of Human Origins: a hominid couple embracing as they walk, a Cro-Magnon family in a hut made of mammoth bones. Even the Hall of Ocean Life, slashed through its middle by a giant blue whale, is ringed with these neatly framed dioramas of life undersea and at the shore. Many of the museum’s halls today follow this model: They are often grouped by habitat—North America, Asia, Africa, the seas. At the center of the room, an animal shares space with the visitors—the famous blue whale, or a herd of elephants, the stars and main attractions. And around the periphery, a picture-book of life-sized frames, an adventurer’s vacation slide-show.

When Parr took office, habitat group dioramas had been the mode for museum displays for decades. Natural history museums housed the descriptive knowledge of the world, collecting, cataloging, completing their stores. But while dioramas were an integrated advance over rows of specimens displayed in cabinets or drawers, like butterflies pinned up in frames, they still were just extraordinarily detailed display cases for taxidermy. Parr called them the “dead circus” approach. He thought they were reductive and fragmenting, at once too narrow and too busy, far more successful in showing beauty than sharing science. One diorama might show impalas and another half-way across the building showed the birds that lived in a symbiotic relationship with the impalas, but there was no space for that relationship to be shown. The impalas were next to a frame of gazelles, not connected but rather associated. Without connections, there was nothing more than objects, no story.

Dr. Albert E. Parr. Director American Museum of Natural History. Photo: NYPL Digital Collection.

Dr. Albert E. Parr. Director American Museum of Natural History. Photo: NYPL Digital Collection.

Parr was obsessed with story. “In planning a hall the first question should be—not what objects do we want to place in the hall—but what STORY DO WE WANT THE HALL TO TELL,” he type-shouted in a memo. Habitat groups could do no more than say, There is a thing that looks like this. The visitor shuffles to the next frame over. Then there is another thing in a nearby part of the world (or: of roughly the same size and warm-bloodedness). Here is another thing, here’s what it looks like. But Parr wanted a museum with a story—a multitude of stories—and he wanted the museum to convey this to its visitors. With their breadth, museums were in a unique position among educational institutions to show the connections between a classroom’s isolated subject areas. Museums could show nature as a whole. And to Parr, the habitat groups were the negation of this potential. The museum’s resources were poured into a few beautiful dioramas, while the interconnected web of nature’s operation was left ignored. And so A.E. Parr built what is now called the Hall of New York State Environment, to show what he believed a museum could and should do.

Just as Parr was joining the museum, a new committee was convened: the Committee on Plan and Scope. Far from a bureaucratic formality, the committee was charged with re-envisioning—with revolutionizing—the museum’s relationship to its visitors. And its aims were grand. “The field which the Museum recognizes as essentially its own is the understanding of life upon the earth.”

Understanding was the first key to Parr’s vision. He gave the example of an anthill: a person encountering it might see a mound of dirt or a writhing mass of bugs. But met with understanding, it becomes “a source of fascination.” So if the visitor was to do more than just see the natural world, the museum had to do more than just lay out the information. There had to be an act of communication, a conversation rather than a relentless lecture. Dioramas were too much of a visual assault—an overly full and busy field of vision that overwhelmed rather than invited and yet imparted so little understanding of its contents. A little key to the diorama—an outline drawing with numbers on each figure that corresponded to names listed farther below—was often set on the side of the frame, or at visitor’s knee level, and required checking back and forth to identify each element. But that was if a visitor cared to consult the label at all. And then on to the next diorama, and then the next, and then the next, in a monotonous series of same-sized frames. But Parr argued that it was not enough to have a variety of specimens; he insisted that the museum attend to the variety—and thoughtfulness—of their presentations, too, of “the larger impressions which the vistas of each hall present to the public.” The habitat groups were the pinnacle of realism, but why should realism be the only mode of presentation of the museum? The art world was long past a blind devotion to pure naturalism. But, Parr wrote, “our artistic vocabulary has been very limited.”

In Parr’s new hall, form would be considered as a function, made specific to the information being conveyed. How had the packaging been so long overlooked? The space was too vast and too bright, the atmosphere too cold and uncomfortable. No one knew where to look, nor had anywhere comfortable to sit from which to do so. Parr wanted the museum to welcome the visitor in, and frame-to-frame, step-by-step, help him discover a story.

The welcome was informational as well as physical. The public’s common experience needed to be the starting point if the museum was to welcome the visitor from his own world into the realm of scientific knowledge. Parr’s new hall would be a way of meeting the visitor on his own terms, in his own world, and showing him how that known world was also the world of the museum. It would make the museum familiar and empower the visitor to engage with it. The process needed to be mediated. Like slowly acclimating to a hot bath, or depressurizing a deep-sea diver so he can safely breathe. Daily life has us all pressurized; science is the fresh air.

This hall would welcome the visitor from his world into the museum’s by showing that those worlds were actually one and the same. In the habitat group dioramas, whether they depict exotic mammals or local woodland creatures, there are no humans. There is not a farmhouse in the distance, no band of hunters at the edge of the field of view. Time blurs to a vague unreality that is not “then” or “now” but an unnatural exemption from history. A pristine wilderness, untouched and unsullied—the visitor’s place in the world is erased. But Parr often referred to this hall, our hall, as “The Hall of Man and Nature.” Rather than showing one isolated capsule, the new hall would encompass nature and the human world within a familiar, welcoming landscape to tell the story of humanity and nature, intertwined. The hall would show time through the slow dance of geology, through the advance of industry, and through the familiar cycle of the seasons. The central theme would not be a certain animal, or even the landscape portrayed. Not one story but the fact that the stories are there. Parr, strongly influenced by the burgeoning field of ecology, believed that the interconnectedness between disciplines was the story of the world.

In the late forties, Parr and curator Henry K. Svenson chose the town of Pine Plains, New York, along with its nearby valley and Mount Stissing, as the model ecosystem for the hall. It was close enough to New York City to be familiar, far enough away to find the blurry border of the rural and the natural worlds. Parr wanted to show how a varied and rich scientific story could exist in one location. Some stories would be familiar—the way spring blossoms—and some stories might not—the push and pull of glacier and rock—but the hall would guide the visitor from the known world to the world of science beneath, before, and beyond the everyday. But still, it is all the same world.

The hall opened in 1951 as the Felix M. Warburg Hall of Ecology, named for the father of a museum trustee. Museum donors, city officials, and other distinguished guests were joined by almost forty residents of Pine Plains. Newspapers wrote of “10 years of planning,” “new techniques in museum exhibition,” and “drastic departure from the conventional type of rectangular museum hall,” enthusiastically echoing the museum’s press release.

Parr and museum trustees posed for a picture in front of “An October Afternoon Near Stissing Mountain,” the diorama Parr adapted for his own use. It is the snapshot of the landscape that shows you the realm of the stories of the hall. Every display within the hall delves into one little aspect of this picture. The land, the water, the plants, the fox. It is the landing pad and the summation. It is context—“Here you are,”—and common ground—“You know what this is,”—and invitation—“Come in, let’s see what more there is to know.”

Photo Courtesy: American Museum of Natural History

Photo Courtesy: American Museum of Natural History

* * *

When you are in the Hall of New York State Environment, your eyes adjust to the gentle dimness. When you leave it, the modern museum is dazzling, busy and bright.

The museum’s fossil halls were gutted and redesigned between 1994 and 1996, and although they are not the newest exhibits—a dark and cluttered Hall of Human Origins opened in 2007, a new Teddy Roosevelt memorial in 2012—they are the most innovative and the most beautiful. They house more than just the dinosaur bones—there are early vertebrates that predate the great beasts, and mammals who took the stage after their demise—but the dinosaurs are, as they have always been, the museum’s star and crowning glory. They are big, they are impressive, they are exciting, and they are cool. On the fourth floor of the museum, four long galleries form the sides of a square. A clockwise path takes you through the Hall of Vertebrate Origins, two halls of dinosaurs, and then the Lila Acheson Wallace Wing of Mammals and Their Extinct Relatives. You know you’re done when you walk past a herd of bone mammoths, trunks upraised and seeming to herald the modern age to come.

I have a handful of childhood memories of the museum—most vividly, sweating in winter coats with my dad and little sister when the heat when on the fritz—but all I know of the fossil halls is these new incarnations. Maybe my memories of the old halls faded over the years, but I think the new halls’ dramatic, almost visionary beauty eclipsed any other possibility, as if there is no other way for these halls, now, to be. They have a clean and glowing whiteness, not forbidding or aseptically spare, but an inviting expansion of space. High, white ceilings are lit in their arches. The space is full of light. Cases jut out from the walls, glass on all sides all the way to the floor. Some of it is tinted a little green, like sea glass. Fossil skeletons are a soft or sandy brown, sometimes free-standing, sometimes still encased in stone or dirt, a reminder of their provenance.

What is astonishing, though, once you adjust to the light, borderless space, is the information. It is presented in such generous abundance. These halls trust the visitor to be smart; you are talked to like an adult. The fossils are arranged not chronologically, as would be traditional for a natural history museum’s fossil halls, but evolutionarily. They don’t mark the passage of time but rather tell the physiological story of evolution, branching paths according physical characteristics. The museum helped pioneer this method of analysis, called cladistics, and it is what everything here is built on. The Saurischian dinosaurs, in their own hall, all share forward-tilted pubic bones—they are the ancestors of modern birds. (A flock of seagulls soars in the ceiling at the end of the Saurischians’ hall.)

In one way, this is an evolution of Parr’s mission. Story is everywhere—the evolutionary links, continental drift, two dinosaurs frozen in battle. But amidst all the skeletons and light and space inviting in the visitor, story has shifted. It is a scientific story, not a natural one. It awes and amazes rather than invites. The familiar is not awesome. The familiar does not wow.

There is more here than can be taken in. The information is there for anyone who wants to read it, but nothing stops you from ignoring it entirely, just looking at all the cool bones. You have more choice here; the museum guides you less. While Parr asked, “what STORY DO WE WANT TO TELL,” these halls ask you what story you want to find. Paths fork and branch and return to the center thoroughfare, taking you, if you want to follow, to nooks and interactive screens and small topographical globes that show you how continents drift and ask to be touched.

Today’s museum sweeps you up in movement, in its displays and its crowds. Animals and their bones climb the walls. In the Hall of Vertebrate Origins, the high space of the high-walled room is filled with a sense of motion. You enter beneath the gaping maw of a reconstructed dunkleosteus, a huge fish plated with bony armor. An ancient shark with feathery ribs seems to swim in the air farther down, and a giant sea turtle beyond that. A plesiosaur skeleton—it looks like a sea monster, and its name means “close to lizard,” as it’s not a dinosaur itself—swarms over the next twenty feet of displays, and at the end of the hall, spindly pterosaurs are suspended in flight, six-foot fingerling wings delicate and presaging the halls of dinosaurs to come.

There is nothing between you and the dinosaur or mammoth skeletons but a small railing at your knees. They are in the same space that you are, and so are the hundreds of people around you. The white walls blend with the ceiling and with the bright fossil displays in glass. When you look at an ancient armadillo you see the people looking at him from the other side, tourists reading labels, a toddler mashing her hand up against the glass. People are everywhere. These are among the museum’s most popular halls, so of course the crowds are there, but the sense of people around you is also in the design. This is not where the museum tells you, the individual, a story. Here, the story is built in space for your exploration. You can walk around all sides of the family of duck-billed dinosaurs, on a raised bridge on one side so you can get a closer view, and see the other visitors past those brown bone legs. You are part of the crowd here, speeding along or slowing the current when you stop to read. You can find the hip-high label identifying the sky-swimming dunkleosteus, or just look up and marvel, or keep walking with your eyes straight ahead.

* * *

Parr came to the museum just months after the attack on Pearl Harbor. His mission was to adapt the museum not just to a changing world, but to a changed one. The museum was not a little bubble of academia, carrying on as if everything was the same. Instead, it was a part of the new national mission. A 1942 museum report called the natural history museum’s obligation to educate children and adults “one of the fundamental beliefs of a democracy.” This was more than just fitting the museum’s branding to the spirit of current events. Parr knew that the public saw the natural history museum’s purview as rare and strange specimens, curiosity cabinets unrelated to life in the real, tumultuous world. But Parr believed the museum has something to offer. The museum’s exhibits on faraway lands and foreign cultures could build bridges of understanding between museum visitors and people in distant nations. The war had highlighted the immense suffering around the world and the museum could be part of the cure. Parr wrote, “In a world beset by hostility and want, the natural history museums have an opportunity, never before equalled, to serve the development of peace and a better life for all.” His aims were not humble. He believed that public education could protect the nation from totalitarianism—that the right kind of natural history museum could truly save the world.

In part, Parr’s reaction to the war reflected a new understanding of the fragility of nature. The atomic bomb had revealed the alarming power man had come to wield over the world. Nature was no longer endlessly replenishable; it had become a limited resource. And so there was a new exigence to the subject matter of the museum’s purview. At the same time, urbanization was concentrating America’s population in cities, disconnecting citizens from the very land of the nation. While the museum taught visitors about the flora and fauna of distant, exotic lands, the world just beyond the city limits was now sometimes just as strange.

It was crucial that the citizens of this country get to know its land. Parr saw nature as the very seed of patriotism: “Any one of us looking back upon his own personal life will recognize how much of his devotion to his country has sprung from his experience of its beauty.” But he feared that the generation coming of age during the war would miss out on this natural attachment to their home, fraught as the relationship was made by the war. The museum could be a place to foster this connection, where young people could appreciate the beauty and stories of their natural home and have the experiences that sowed love for this country and its society.

Even beyond that, though, Parr believed that the museum could do more than influence a visitor’s relationship with nature—the museum’s work was vital to democracy itself. Parr remembered visiting museums as a young child and he valued those experiences of personal discovery. He wanted the museum, now, to go beyond educating visitors to empowering them. Visitors could become stewards of their own understanding of the world. Museum president F. Trubee Davison wrote that an understanding of the world in which we live is essential to a democracy; Parr added the conviction that it also mattered how this understanding was achieved. Totalitarianism depended on subjects, not citizens. Meek, unthinking obedience was central. But if you taught a person to think—a child, a man, a visitor to the museum—then you primed him to participate in democracy and to resist authoritarian rule. Perhaps if visitors to the museum could make their own discoveries, that sense of engaged responsibility would infuse other aspects of the visitors’ civic life. Learning about the world was not an end unto itself. At least, no longer.

The teachings that could be most valuable were those that showed nature as the environment of man. Exotic locales were pretty, but familiar settings engaged the visitor in the museum’s vision and showed him that he was a part of the natural world. This was how Parr believed the museum could make a real contribution to the welfare of the citizen, the nation, and the world. What he offered was the Hall of Man and Nature. It was the encapsulation of the museum’s new mission, and the entryway for the visitor into the museum that would ensure that this new mission would work. In order for the visitor to see the museum as representing his own world, the museum needed to start with a world that was already familiar. And in order for the visitor to be empowered, he needed to be given a framework within which to interpret scientific facts, to make the connections between facts that constituted story.

There would be nothing grand in this hall. Even eons of glacial deformation on the Earth’s crust seem small and matter-of-fact in their hand-painted displays. Combined, these small stories of the familiar world compose the story not just of man and the landscape, but of humanity and the natural world, an intertwined dance that takes place over lifetimes. The give and take of cultivation, the secrets beneath the ground in, literally, our own backyards. How a seed becomes a tree, how a flower becomes an apple, how land becomes home and what we do on that precious ground. Each little story could seem so small, but they would all be told with generous patience and care. Because the men behind the museum saw this work as vital. Davison wrote, “The natural sciences are not, as some assume, static. Whenever the balance of nature is upset by the pressures of modern, complex civilization we must revitalize and adjust our teachings to the changing world and community.” The Hall of Man and Nature was to be that revitalization. It was the hope of the future of more than just the museum itself.

Photo Courtesy: American Museum of Natural History

Photo Courtesy: American Museum of Natural History

* * *

On a Friday afternoon, the museum is busy but not packed. The fourth-floor fossil halls are packed, swarming with speed-walkers and lingerers in cross-currents of pedestrian traffic. Downstairs in the Hall of New York State Environment, the crowd is thin. A girl, around eight years old, criss-crosses her way down the hall, taking a careful iPhone picture of every single display. One or two women seem like they could be her mother, but the girl walks through alone. A young teenaged boy with short blond hair and a giant backpack stands seriously reading the display text about glaciation. The only light in the hall shines out of the displays—a little private light on the faces that face them.

There are the older children there alone, and smaller children led through by an adult’s hand. At the display on Life in the Soil, a white-haired man says to his granddaughter, “Kayla, look. In winter, animals burrow underground and they sleep there to stay warm.” She peers at the little model mouse that has been burrowed behind the glass for sixty years and says, “Oooh!”

For all the small, quiet experiences happening here, the blond boy learning about rocks and Kayla gazing at the nestled mouse, there are far more people just walking through on their way from one place to another, not to here. Maybe they’re following the little fork stickers on the floor that point to the cafeteria, or are just relieved to be walking anywhere quickly after a day of the slow museum pace and its pull on their lower backs. But they’re not stopping to look. This hall doesn’t demand your attention. Two girls in their twenties walk by and jeer with sarcastic enthusiasm, “Apples! Apples!” They laugh as they walk on.

A young family—two parents and their daughter in a stroller—walks by briskly. The father says, without stopping, “Oh look! ‘Apple Orchard in Dutchess County, New York.’ That’s right by…” and launches into a story about somewhere in Massachusetts. But even though they keep walking, this is a moment of what Parr wanted. There is little else in the entire museum that a visitor can so easily and sincerely connect to his own experience. Who knows where that man and his family were headed next—they had the sense of purpose most often seen en route to the exit—but still, the museum had welcomed them in, and said, This is the story of your world. This is your world, and this is its story.

The visitor’s world is not the museum’s primary concern. Special exhibitions—Traveling the Silk Road, Race to the End of the Earth, Extreme Mammals—transport you to exotic times and places. The permanent exhibitions traffic in amazement: the whale is so big, the frogs are so bright, the Hall of Biodiversity an astonishing swarm of life. The planetarium space show tells a story, but it holds your attention by engulfing your senses with an experience. And then maybe this excitement inspires a little girl to go home and learn the names of the constellations and all the planets and their moons, and the night sky is no longer spooky darkness, but a beautiful realm full of things she can name. The museum today teaches you about science, but it makes you care by getting you to fall in love.

Maybe Kayla fell in love with that mouse in its winter burrow. Parr believed that the natural history museum served its visitor by inspiring a curiosity about nature that the museum itself couldn’t fulfill. The visitor would leave inspired “to seek satisfaction in nature itself.”

When I was small, my grandfather showed me half of a roasted peanut. He pointed to the little nub sticking out of one end.

“Do you know what this is?” I didn’t. I was probably four years old.

“That’s the germ. A peanut is actually a seed, and that little part is what grows into a peanut plant.”

In the Hall of New York State Environment, a dad led his 5-year-old daughter up to the same diorama that the busy Massachusetts man had sped by, that the two young women had mocked for its simplicity. White script on a green background says, “The Apple Orchard in Dutchess Country, New York,” because once, someone very earnest decided that this simple thing was worthy of space in a museum.

The little girl and her dad stood before the display, her face about level with the dissected apple flower. Her mom came to join them. The man said to the little girl, “These are about apple orchards.” She studied the display for a moment, and then pointed. “What’s that?” One of her parents murmured an answer. “That’s the inside of an apple,” or, “That’s how an apple makes its seeds.” She pointed at the next thing and asked the same question again, “What’s that?” in no hurry. Her parents spoke quietly, and couldn’t be heard from any distance away, but the girl’s voice floated through the hall:

“What’s that?” “What’s that?” “What’s that?”

* * *

Jaime Green teaches writing at Columbia University and hosts The Catapult, a podcast of new writing read aloud.

Editor: Mike Dang; Fact-checker: Matt Giles

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