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Behind the Scenes at the American Museum of Natural History

by Joseph Wallace

Pub Date: June 1st, 2000
ISBN: 0-312-25221-8
Publisher: St. Martin's

A catalogue and chronology of the curators of the great (dinosaurs) and small (insects) who have graced the halls of the Museum since its inception in 1869.

Wallace (The American Museum of Natural History’s Book of Dinosaurs and Other Ancient Creatures, 1994) goes the whole nine yards in this paean to the scholars and artists who amassed and mounted the collections on view (or more likely in storage) on New York’s Central Park West. For starters, he celebrates Carl Akeley as both collector and taxidermist: an early voice for biodiversity; Akeley lived to see a sanctuary for the mountain gorilla established in the Belgian Congo in 1925. Also celebrated in the how-to-display-it category is the ceiling suspension of a model of the great blue whale, the largest mammal ever (earlier, fairly preposterous ideas were happily scotched when a canny curator suggested that decaying whale flesh odors wafting across a proposed model of a beached whale would create just the right atmosphere). Best are these longish pieces that create a sense of time, place, and character of the museum and its stars (from Roy Chapman Andrews to Margaret Mead). Otherwise, one tends to get lost in the archives of ichthyology, herpetology, gems, entomology, paleontology (big and little beasts), ornithology, and finally anthropology/ethnography. Yes, they are all here—the painstaking dissectors who sort out species of juncos, spiders, and mammals, fossil fishes and turtles and flies in amber. Some, like Libbie Hyman, spent over 30 years producing volumes of information on all known invertebrates. Others have developed or promoted cladistics (a system of classifying species) or proposed still-controversial ideas about evolution (like the punctuated equilibrium theory of Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldridge).

Wallace’s telling tends to glorify them all—no warts at all in this display. Despite that, this is a fascinating portrait of one of the world’s great museums—and one of New York’s crown jewels.