After getting up nice and early I made my way over to the Upper West Side to meet up with a friend of mine from UQ who is also on exchange at McGill. Me and some friends she’d made at the hostel walked through Central Park to 5th Avenue to grab some overly clichéed “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”. This was mostly at the behest of an sulky and frankly annoying camp Chilean guy who told me he desperately wants to live in New York and apparently is intent on reenacting all the steps of Audrey Hepburn and Blair Waldorf and complaining when nobody else shares his enthusiasm. Needless to say, I ditched the group pretty fast.
I decided to walk back through Central Park on my way to the Natural History Museum, stopping to see some of the famous landmarks like Bethesda Terrace (which also apparently features in Gossip Girl somehow), the Lake and the Belvedere Castle (which is actually pretty cool). Although the park is still fairly impressive in winter I definitely would like to come back in spring or summer when the weather is a bit more hospitable and the trees aren’t all dead.
Finally I stumbled, half-frozen, into the Museum of National History to meet two more friends from UQ. The Museum was actually really weird. First of all, it’s huge. All up we spent ~5hrs in there and only just managed to see everything before they closed. Second of all, it’s not at all similar to what I expected — I presumed it would be very similar to the Natural History Museum in London (which is incredible) but instead I was in for a bit of a surprise.
Much of the reason I spent so long inside is that I opted to pay extra for 3 “special exhibitions”. The first was a visually spectacular planetarium experience (narrated by Neil deGrasse Tyson) which explained a bunch about our current understandings of space, the universe and dark matter. The graphics on this were insane and Neil’s narration was, of course, on point. After 20 minutes of journeying around the universe it was time to head back to Earth and visit the animals!
Most of the animal specimens are displayed in highly detailed dioramas depicting not only the animals themselves but also the surrounding environment. Admittedly this is a pretty good way to give context to what otherwise would just be cases of stuffed dead animals but I found it a little off-putting at first, especially considering how lifelike many of the scenes are. The African and American mammals exhibits were probably the best I think, but lots of the others were interesting too, especially where they highlighted really rare or endangered animals.
Something that really put me off though was the inclusion of not just animals but people as well. Although I understand that it makes sense to include humans as part of “natural history” (we are part of the Earth after all), it made me really uncomfortable to see Native, African and Asian peoples and their cultures displayed as curiosities side-by-side with displays of wild animals. Many of the descriptions on the anthropological displays were also extremely dated (and by extension, pretty racist) in the way they talked about the cultures and peoples that were being displayed. Overall I feel like a museum of “natural history” would be better served moving these artefacts and dioramas to an actual history museum where hopefully they could be displayed with a bit more modern and culturally sensitive curation and using the space made available to add to a number of gaps in their collection.
Note the flying carpet in the upper right. #historicalaccuracy
After wincing my way through the anthropological collections I sat down to my second “special exhibition” a very sleek IMAX movie about the “Mysteries of the Unseen World” (i.e. microorganisms, nanotechnology, invisible spectrums of light, etc.). The graphics in this were absolutely crazy, with heaps of awesome visualisations of individual atoms, microscopic organisms, super-slow motion and super-high-speed photography and more.
The IMAX took longer than expected so by now I was rushing through the exhibits. There were a bunch of cool rocks and minerals (although oddly, very little explanatory material about geology, tectonics or vulcanism which I think made the educational potential of such displays pretty limited to exiting rock nerds). There were also some really good displays about the origins and evolution of humans including a really cool display and reconstruction of “Lucy”, one of the most complete early humanoid skeleton ever found, being over 2 million years old.
My final “special exhibition” was at the Butterfly Conservatory, which means I got to wander around in a steamy room full of butterflies. Although admittedly I’ve done this a number of times before in Australia it was cool seeing some different species of butterflies, especially the Monarchs which I’d always heard about in zoology lectures which migrate thousands and thousands of kilometres every year between the US and Mexico. A particularly cheeky butterfly even had the nerve to land on my camera as I tried to photograph it and wouldn’t move even after I lightly poked it a couple of times with my finger.
At this point I had half an hour left until closing so I really had to run to see the last section of the museum: fossils! The selection of fossils was actually pretty impressive and so big it filled five different halls. Of course there was a bunch of enormous dinosaurs (ornithischian and saurischian) as well as other ancient vertebrates (pterosaurs, giant fish and turtles), extinct megafauna (mammoths, rhinos, sloths) and a bunch of freaky giant amphibians that looked somewhere between lizards, frogs and salamanders.
After being ushered out of the museum onto the subway me and my friends decided to make our way over to the place they’re staying in East Williamsburg (in Brooklyn) for some delicious ramen, peanut brittle and tea. Williamsburg is every bit as hipster as people make it out to be but overall it was pretty nice and the food was cheap so I wasn’t complaining. After hanging out in their friends’s loft where they’re staying and chatting about gentrification and pretentious cinema I finally made it back home.
It definitely was a long day but pretty worth it. Hoping I can keep my energy levels up for another 3 days!