Saturday, June 3, 2017

American Museum of Natural History, part 1: big dead icons

For someone from a tiny island in the Old World, the United States can't half seem like an intimidating place. There's the sheer vastness of it, of course; that's obvious. There are the angry, impatient reactions you get from absolutely everyone at the airport when you arrive. And then there's the fact that you can't ever know what you'll really pay for something, because 'sales tax' (a la VAT) is never included on any price tags. Oh, and when you go to buy a bottle of Diet Coke, you'll find that it reads "20 oz", whatever that means. But all of it's worth it - even the horrific indigestion when you try to stomach their gigantic food portions - to visit the American Museum of Natural History in New York.* Blimey, it's a very good museum.

This was actually my second visit to the US; my first was in 2003, with my parents, to visit all the tacky tourist nonsense in Florida (which I thoroughly enjoyed, obviously). This time, Nicole (the girlfriend) and I stayed with our friend Nancy in Brooklyn. Although it was to be a short trip, a visit to the American Museum of Natural History was still definitely on the cards. It's a museum that I'd read about as a child and had always wanted to visit - after all, it contains some of the most iconic skeletal mounts and dinosaur specimens in the world (and the word 'iconic' is truly deserved here, for a change). Happily, it doesn't disappoint.

My benchmark for large, historic natural history museums is, of course, the Natural History Museum in London. It's the one I'm most familiar with, having grown up in South East England. I think it's safe to say that the NHM and AMNH have a very different feel. The NHM feels, by design, like a grand medieval cathedral, with its older corridors having quite a dark, moody ambience. The AMNH, by contrast, seems much lighter, more open and more imperious in its design. I think the contrast between the two is exemplified perfectly in their respective grand entrance halls, and even in the dinosaur mounts found within - the AMNH's rearing Barosaurus is an imposing show of force in skeletal form, whereas the much older Diplodocus mount in the NHM is far more stately. (Or rather, it was, because some twazzock went and replaced it with a whale. Boo!) Regardless of whether or not Barosaurus could have adopted this exact pose, the mount represents a very impressive feat of engineering and a rare example, in this museum, of dinosaur mounts of different species interacting with one another.

The Barosaurus/Allosaurus face-off is an impressive display, but dinosaur enthusiasts will find the real treasures deeper in the museum. Up on the fourth floor, the Saurischian and Ornithischian dinosaur halls are separated by a short corridor, rather than being directly adjacent. It's a slightly curious arrangement that is likely a product of particular circumstances in the museum's history, but it works well enough. In fact, starting in one and progressing through other halls to the other is a nice way to break up the dinosaur exhibits (no one mention Ornithoscelida). We started out in the Saurischian hall, home to what was once the definitive T. rex mount, namely that of AMNH 5027.

Once mounted in the towering tripod pose that inspired countless artists over the decades, this Rexy was remounted in the early '90s to reflect a modern understanding of the animal's posture. It was also originally mounted with three-fingered, allosaur-like forelimbs, but these were replaced when the true nature of tyrannosaur arms came to light; in spite of this, the mount retains its inaccurately chunky, allosaurian feet even today. Regardless of this and one or two other quirks (the forelimbs seem strangely positioned to my eye), this is an extremely handsome beast. It's actually rather refreshing to see a T. rex skeleton mounted as if simply taking a step. Not running, not rearing, not high-kicking, not snapping its jaws down on something else - just being. For me, the lack of theatre only enhances the awesome presence of this mount. It makes it easier to imagine this animal in life; its length, its massive bulk, the huge power of its jaws. It's enough to make one fall in love with Rexy all over again...

The skull on the mount is, of course, a copy, but the real thing is displayed in a glass box directly in front of it. This helps dispel any illusions people might have that these things come out of the ground in an immaculate, three-dimensional form. It's crushed and distorted, because of course it is. Much as I appreciate how museums would really rather not put their valuable original fossils on display, seeing this and countless other priceless specimens in person was very special.

Standing opposite Rexy is another real icon among museum mounts, the apatosaurine AMNH 460. Originally labelled Brontosaurus and sporting an inaccurate sculpted head, it too inspired countless pop culture depictions over the decades, and as such is of immense historical importance; so much so, that a scale model of the original mount stands alongside the updated one. This is a stunningly complete specimen [EDIT or not - it's a composite, d'oh!], and a sign on the raised walkway shown in the above photos details exactly what's original, which is a wonderful touch I wish more museums would emulate. Incidentally, said walkway is a brilliant idea in itself, allowing for close-up views of parts of the skeleton that you wouldn't normally be able to get to without a ladder. Getting up close to the ribcage and spinal column really helps in getting some idea of the sheer robustness (and often bizarre proportions) of this particular beefy boy. It also allows for photographs from some funky perspectives, like this:

One last classic mount for now: the Allosaurus AMNH 5753, posed as if scavenging from a partial Apatosaurus carcass. This is perhaps best known today for inspiring a life restoration by Charles Knight, which was subsequently copied countless times over. From a distance, this specimen appears to be overshadowed by Rexy, but getting close up serves as a reminder as to how big Allosaurus really was. The skull appears to be oddly truncated and rounded; given how old the mount is, I'm wondering how much of it was reconstructed (as always, please do fill me in). Still, what a treat to be able to see such a museum icon close up. Incidentally, David wrote a little piece about this years ago. Sorry to make you feel old, there.

That's enough words for now, I think, but there'll be more from the AMNH to come, because I bloody loved it and could write about it all day (but let me know if you get totally bored). Until next time!

*Obviously, I'm not being serious here. During my few days in New York I had a whale of a time, not just at the museum!


  1. You were at my museum and didn't look me up? Come, now!

  2. A fantastic museum. My "home" museum, as it were. If memory serves the Allosaurus skull is heavily reconstructed. I believe only a few bits are original.


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