Finding Home Among the Wildebeests

An ode to one of my favorite “homes”:

The American Museum of Natural History sits like a specimen of Roman architecture amidst bustling Manhattan. Perched across from Central Park, it is an anachronous monument, towering above the taxis, city blocks and sleek urban dwellers. It is part of the city’s landscape, and yet occupies a world of its own.

Since 1869, the museum has captivated the public imagination. It is featured in blockbuster giants like Night at the Museum and The Day After Tomorrow, and even the occasional video game like Grand Theft Auto IV. Some behold it with the fearful awe of Walt from the indie flick The Squid and the Whale, while others recall it with the nostalgia of Holden Caulfield, protagonist of the novel The Catcher in the Rye.

Each day the museum attracts swarms of curiosity-mongers that include first-time tourists and life-long frequenters, wide-eyed schoolchildren and entrenched academics. Visiting for the first time is like falling down a rabbit hole. One abandons reality for a realm of peculiar creatures and other curiosities. By the end of the visit, one has confronted riddles, attained new heights and reached new conclusions about the world.

After this first visit, every one that follows is a homecoming, and the museum forever beckons with its promise of providing a haven for discovery. On a cold or rainy day, it is a cozy cabinet of wonder into which one can crawl. When the sun is out, it stands to make a bright day even brighter.

On different occasions, one appreciates the museum in different ways. As a child, a visit means an adventure laced with thrill and fear, and inevitably going to bed dreaming of safaris. Years later, the space might provide the setting for a first date with a longstanding crush. That nervous teenager might return in college as a poised art student, armed with a sketchpad, hoping to learn anatomy in a room filled with looming dinosaur skeletons. Eventually, she might visit the museum with her own children in tow — reliving through them her own childhood escapades among the minerals, plants and animals. Like a series of height marks penciled onto the wall, these visits chronicle one’s growth.

The museum’s most notable exhibits stay the same, as fixed as the columns lining the front of its structure. In an otherwise fast-paced world, there is comfort in this permanence. In the Hall of Human Origins, hunter-gatherers fashion the same tools and weave the same baskets day after day. For them, it is always daytime and the seasons never change. In the Akeley Hall of African Mammals, taxidermied wildebeests and olive baboons stare across the same watering hole with a tireless distant gaze. And, in the Milstein Hall of Ocean Life, a colossal blue whale hangs from the ceiling by its dorsal fin in a perpetual display of disobedience against gravity.

These characters that have made it onto the museum’s permanent cast seem to have wandered into its halls during a far-distant era, found the conditions favorable and decided to settle in for the remainder of time. To the frequent patron, they are like old friends, faithful and unwavering. They provide a sense of familiarity, greeting each guest with steadfast consistency, and a sense of protection, watching over the rest of the museum like old guards.

But the space is far from static, for there is also the revolving door of temporary exhibits. These fleeting spectacles inject new life into the museum. Some are seasonal, like the annual butterfly exhibit that runs from October to May. In this exhibit, the visitor goes from passive observer to cohabitant of an ecosystem. The smell of moist, tropical dirt wafts in the air, and humidity seeps through one’s pores. The butterflies flutter about, blissfully unaware of any intrusions. In a museum that mostly recreates distant worlds through inanimate displays, the butterfly vivarium is a breathing wonder.

Some temporary exhibits catapult visitors to the forefront of science. To walk through Beyond Planet Earth: The Future of Space Exploration was to roam to the frontiers of the solar system and catch a tantalizing glimpse of space travel that is yet to come. Still others remind us of the splendor in our current world (Frogs: A Chorus of Colors) or of extraordinary events of the past (Traveling the Silk Road). Engaging with these ephemeral displays, visitors see the museum in a different light. Suddenly it’s as if the space has gotten a fresh haircut, or is sporting a new pair of shoes, or returned from abroad with an enviable suntan.

Regardless of whether you grew up going to the museum, or whether you are about to walk its halls for the first time, stepping off the teeming city street and into the museum’s grand entrance hall is an act of transformation. For a brief period of time, you become an ant, traveling through folds of time and place as if they are deep grooves on a leaf. You are at once insignificant and profoundly in tune with the world. Milling about in a throng of other ants, you hold an acute awareness of the topography around you — everything is magnified, and also a bit fearsome. The place leaves its imprint, and you make a scent trail.

Years later, from miles away, you will always be able to find your way home.

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