American Museum of Natural History
This is another beast of a museum and one that I’ve been really desperate to visit for years. Today, I finally got my chance. Set about half way up Central Park West, it is one of the biggest museums in the world – my feet are basically bleeding now. Its huge collection starts at the big bang and essentially describes the natural world from then on through a million different forms of communication, both old and new and encompassing an impressively comprehensive collection of damn cool stuff. The museum has a huge scientific staff and sponsors expeditions around the world (and into space) all year round to enhance the collection and its insatiable thirst for knowledge. One of the founders of the museum was Teddy Roosevelt and you still see his presence throughout this monumental gem of a building, if slightly labyrinthine/rabbit warren-y.
I start my wander in one of the newest parts of the building, the Rose Center for Earth and Space and the Helibrun Cosmic Pathway. Completed in 2000 the pathway encircles a huge, planet-like sphere in the centre of the annexe, vaguely resembling The Machine in ‘Contact’, for any Carl Sagan nerds out there.
The Rose Center for Earth and Space (click to explore)
Inside the sphere is a projected sound and light show describing the Big Bang and how the Earth got to be where it is. This is all projected into a concave disk that you look down into and is very impressive and vertigo-inducing. Despite this, the whole thing is narrated by my arch-enemy Liam Neeson – who for some ungodly reason always seems to be cast the in these all-knowing, sage-like roles. Heavens knows why. Back out on the path way, you travel forward in time from the big band and see the universe, galaxy, solar system and finally earth evolve.
Starting the Helibrun Cosmic Pathway.
Down on the very lower floor there’s a jumble of cosmic phenomena including a short video presentation describing the on-going research the museum is collaborating on internationally in studying black holes and quasars.
The bulk of the rest of the museum is considerably older and containers probably what it is most famous for – the countless numbers of dioramas featuring meticulously taxidermied animals in reconstructed habitats, with extremely natural poses and beautifully quaint handpainted backdrops that give not only an incredible sense of depth but the obvious hand of a truly talented human being who assembled the thing. Which is one of the nicest things about the dioramas, they are impeccably built but still have a human, artisanal substance to them – unlike the machine constructed, “perfectly” made interpretative we are so used to seeing in museums.
One of many dioramas.
The poses of the animals are quite astonishing too – a herd of Oryx stand wide eyed and erect as if they have just noticed us and are about to bolt into the undergrowth, several birds seem like they are captured mid-flight. This all points to a museum tradition of yesteryear which is so heartbreakingly lacking in the world today.
Just when I think I can’t take any more I remember that the fourth floor is dedicated to the American Museum of Natural History’s vast dinosaur fossil collection. Many of the early digs that uncovered these amazing treasures were pioneered but he museum itself and I don’t think I’ve seen this many on this kind of scale before.
This chap welcomes you to the dino-level.
A lot of the reconstructed skeletons are accompanied by a tiny model of what the creature would have looked like with its skin on, sitting on the side. A total treat for any dino-fan.
Digital Engagement: A confounding amount of apps available for download. Most of them don’t work. The American Museum of Natural History Explorer App, though encompasses a lot of the functionality these dead apps promise and pulls it together into one well designed, clean experience. This is the first time I’ve had a successful bluetooth beacon experience. A little too successful. Even though I had confirmed that I had, in fact found the elephant herd, it kept excitedly alerting me to their proximity. A whole bunch of AR games are also embedded in the app although it seemed like I was really the only, slightly foolish looking person using it. Definitely use the app or the website to book tickets in advance and skip the queues.
New-York Historical Society
Also on Central Park West the New-York Historical Society was founded as New York’s first museum way back in 1804. Charged with exploring the history and identity of New York and, more broadly the USA as a nation, it presents as slightly more bite sized experience that its neighbouring cousin. The collection focuses mainly on the development of Manhattan while leaving the outer boroughs to the Brooklyn Historical Society across the East River. The purpose built building was completed in 1902 and forms another piece of the jigsaw in New York’s collection of treasures.
On the ground floor you can attend the museum’s “multimedia film experience”, New York Story – a sound and light show that tells a compact but fairly comprehensive story of New York since colonisation. In this case “multimedia” means projection on a whole bunch of motorised blinds that fly in and out on a stage with additional automated lighting effects. It’s a fairly straightforward trick however the content is particularly good, especially the more contemporary shots of the city in a pretty sumptuous 3:1 ratio. It actually left me wishing I’d made this first stop on my clammer through New York as, despite it being 17.5% tacky actually gives a fairly energised intro to the city.
Up on subsequent floors the New-York Historical Society has a vast and eclectic collection of artefacts and ephemera that tell the story of this city from countless perspectives. Thomas Jefferson’s original designs for several of the nation’s buildings are fascinating original objects to peruse. The top level also uses the history and evolution of the Tiffany Lamp to tell part of the story.
The brand spanking new fourth floor promises “history has a whole new story”. Many of these new exhibits comprise touch screens and flat screens hidden behind mirrors to fairly interesting effect. Together, though the collection is a bit of a hodgepodge of stuff with no particular clear narrative linking it all together.
Admission: Bit steep given the scale at $20
Digital engagement: A fun touch table on the fourth floor asks you to act out the mannerisms of early 20th century New York society. The multimedia extravaganza downstairs is fairly fun. Non-responsive website except for the fourth floor exhibit which is obviously getting the big PR pusch.
Fourth floor touch table.