The sky throws fistfuls of rain down upon the city. But even the cozy, tempting gloom, suggesting nothing so much as a night curled up in blankets in front of the television, isn’t dissuading the crowd gathering for the first of this year’s First Fridays after-hours parties at the Natural History Museum. I know way too many people who still wither at the thought of a museum — nothing but a few interminable, teeth-grinding hours of staring at dead things in boxes, they say. I say: Try it with food, music, booze and a dark, stormy night, along with superbrainiacs who will tell you unbelievable true stories. Soon, all those dead things in boxes are going to become really, really interesting.
Inside the museum, the sounds of the storm are drowned out by groovy, ethereal music. A DJ spins in the Hall of African Mammals, repurposed as a lounge where the museum’s traditional crowd of moms and dads, children and grandparents meets new blood — lovers, hipsters, fashionistas and culturistas — in the echoing chambers. For a while I watch a young woman sketch the soft brown nose of a great kudu, the pointy ears wide as satellites. His taxidermied eyes glow with an eerie beauty from within his vitrine, looking out into the darkness: He is studying her as well.
On a walk through the museum’s “Treasures of the Vault” exhibit, I stop to gaze at hermaphrodite butterflies, extremely rare. They don’t have babies, don’t fly well and get eaten fast like potato chips — how do they survive? It’s a miracle to even see them. Another miracle: a silver pheasant collected by curator Kenneth Stager, who prepared the specimen in a trench during an artillery barrage in World War II, while shots exploded around him. Still he worked on the bird. The pheasant’s feet are trussed, its body prone, tummy up as if in offering. There are 35 million objects and specimens in the museum’s vault, and these are the cream of the crop.
Head curator Margaret Hardin tells me her personal favorite is a glass sponge with long, spiraling filaments, like fiber-optic cables, that anchor it to the sea, so fragile they nearly always break when you try to collect them. She moves on to a turquoise sculpture by a contemporary Zuni artist who looked at the raw hunk of rock and said, “Can you see the bear?” Then, to Amelia Earhart’s diary, written when she was a passenger on a flight across the Atlantic, not long before her mysterious disappearance over the Pacific. “Today has been happier on the whole,” Earhart writes in pencil. “We all appeared this morning vowing to change clothes and clean up.” The diary is so light-sensitive that curators have to turn the pages every few days to minimize fading on any one spot. Then, a pair of gigantic tusks — the largest in the public domain — thicker than a man’s torso and long enough to skewer him, collected from a marauding African elephant during the Civil War. “We would never acquire anything like this now,” says Hardin. “It would be very bad form.”
A man peppers her with showy inquiries designed to flaunt his own knowledge about pygmies, about the DNA of flies trapped in amber, about an article he read in the science section of TheNew York Times. Has she read it? No. But it is a child, a flaxen-haired girl sprite with Nordic features, who asks the simpler, more elegant question: “Where is the vault actually located?”
“The vault is a metaphor,” Hardin says, her eyes brightening. “Do you know what a metaphor is?” Yes, the girl nods. “There are many vaults spread out across the museum. There is a vault in the basement, for example. It’s really not like a safety-deposit box. It’s more like a series of cabinets with special locks.”
Hardin is a slight woman with blond hair, glasses, and a soft, gentle handshake. Hers are fingers accustomed to delicate movements. If she could have anything at all, I ask, anything in the whole wide world, what artifact would she want to acquire for the museum?
“The Library of Alexandria perhaps?” the knowledgeable man suggests.
“No,” Hardin says as I start to write. “Don’t put that. And besides,” she reprimands the man, “that’s not one object.”
“I don’t think that way,” she tells me. “None of us who do this kind of research do. Making sure we have a good body of data is important to us. What I would really want is a collection of a thousand pristine specimens, all exquisitely documented. That documentation would include information not only about what each object is, but also about the relationships between the objects as a whole.”
Soon, more people than I have ever seen at the museum during the day arrive for the “Conscious Minds and the Minds of Others” discussion. Brain researcher Dr. Antonio Damasio is a rock star in tweed and turtleneck. Additional chairs are required. Even the grizzlies seem surprised at the crush of bodies, the badgers startled by the funk of 300 damp sweaters.
Next time, the First Fridays discussion will be about language and communication. Elephants, did you know, might communicate with each other through the vibration of the earth? For now, the visitors lined up at the food bar are looking to me a lot like lions at supper. Cubs waiting for a turn at a freshly killed antelope, versus urbanites waiting for plastic cartons of mixed greens with vinaigrette and chicken sandwiches. Evolution is so weird.