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now here you go again

maura @ 10:32 pm

This week I am taking some vacation days, a use ’em or lose ’em kind of situation that so many of us seem to be finding ourselves in here in pandemic season 2. For various reasons we’re not able to go anywhere this week so I’m catching up on sleep and reading, and also trying to get out and about when I can, weather permitting (ugh, the heat, the humidity).

It had been an age, plus the newly-renovated hall of gems and minerals is finally open, so we headed up to the American Museum of Natural History a few days ago. While not unproblematic, as a science and social science nerd I will always count the AMNH among my most favorite museums. I can’t remember when my first visit was, but in graduate school I spent lots of time there as a researcher, using their collections to identify animal bones from the archaeological digs I worked on. The collections of animal bones I was analyzing were from medieval Ireland and 19th century Brooklyn, which meant hanging out with the domesticated animal skeletons on the 5th (?) floor of the museum, each room devoted to a different animal (or closely related species) with drawers full of bones and skins. In the Irish collection I had lots and lots of frog bones to identify, and the folx in the Herpetology Department were so friendly and helpful, in amongst the snakes and amphibians in jars and drawers. And the avian fauna, then (maybe still now?) in the basement — the Brooklyn collection had so many ducks, and wow, duck bones of different species and even genuses are so hard to identify, they all look so similar (and I was much more proficient at mammals, to be fair). There are some things I do still miss about being an archaeologist, but sitting alone in that basement with all of those duck bones is for sure not one of them.

Once the kid was born our AMNH visit frequency increased, unsurprisingly. When he was really little the length of the subway ride meant we usually only could stay at the museum for an hour or so before we hit crankiness or naptime; we got a membership to make the whole thing reasonably affordable, and we’ve kept the membership ever since. When we visit now the echoes of all of our previous visits are there. When he was a toddler we spent lots of time in the old hall of gems and minerals, then with a sort of dark 70s basement vibe, carpeted stairs for toddlers to climb up and down, a few huge rocks to touch, and low cases with the collections visible at toddler level. The dinosaurs, of course, in preschool and elementary school, so much time with them. The Hall of Biodiversity, newly renovated when he was little, still lovely now. The blue whale (right now with a bandaid on one flipper because they’re still giving covid19 vaccines underneath, so cool!) and sitting on the bench to watch the oceans movie, such a soothing place to rest. Meryl Streep explaining cladistics, what more could you ask for?

In North American Forests @ AMNH

Our most recent visit was one million percent worth it, the renovated Hall of Gems and Minerals is fantastic, truly. The displays are terrific, grouping specimens by their chemistry and crystalline structure, plus lots of explanation about geological processes. There are several enormous and frankly stunning items, new to display (I think?) which makes me wonder where they were hiding all these years (though of course I realize that the museum has so many items in storage/for research). It was amazing — I could have looked at the Singing Stone for an hour.

But seeing the new amazingness does make me a little nervous, a tiny bit worried that more renovation might be looming. On the walk from the museum entrance to the minerals we traversed through some of our most favorite spots: North American Forests and the Hall of the New York State Environment. Most of these galleries feature the very classic natural history museum diorama-type displays: a specific location or type of forest, with trees and plants and bugs and birds and other animals, and a description and key. These were also a favorite when the kid was little, trying to find and identify all of the animals like a 3D version of the I Spy books. But they’re also just beautiful. And other cases in those galleries are old-fashioned but also kind of gorgeous, all fabulous fonts and little models of farming in upstate or hibernating chipmunks. The painting I snapped a photo of (above) illustrating the temperature and humidity ranges at different heights in the forest on a rainy day, sunny day, and at night. These galleries aren’t at all flashy, but they still have lots to offer. I hope they stay off the renovation schedule for a good long while, still.

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