Day of the Long-Dead

Visiting the Natural History Museum with a friend last week, I had to wonder: Is it me or are we all captivated, but slightly creeped out, by elaborate dioramas of long-dead, endangered, animals, posed in an imagined setting? I remember wondering as a kid, “How did they die? Was it painful? Were they caught unaware? Did their eyes meet those of their killers?” All these animals had lives, families and daily routines. Maybe the zebra was hanging around enjoying some arid grassland with his friends, and.. BAM!! His life was over, just like that.

I have a mix of appreciation and innate sadness walking among the formerly alive. The many habitat dioramas, with beautifully painted backgrounds, plant life and extraneous birds and bugs are credited to Carl Akeley, a 19th and early 20th century taxidermist/expeditionist, who came to work at the museum in 1909. Ironically, he created the displays to promote the conservation of those species that he’d killed and placed into the dioramas. My friend liked to visit the large elephant display whenever she came to the Museum, so we headed to the Akeley Hall of African Mammals. The elephants are posed, according to Wikipedia, in a “characteristic ‘alarmed’ formation.” Maybe some vile expeditionist was in sight. Two of the elephants were donated by Akeley’s fellow hunter, Teddy Roosevelt, one a baby calf shot by his son.

The Museum is a massive, rambling and meandering space, a beautiful and eclectic mixture of architectural styles. It is definitely a place most New Yorkers have been to, at least once. My friend and I spent the afternoon wandering, but eventually feeling a little sad, and satiated with elephants and bison, we longed to see something that was still alive and get out into the New York sunshine. Sadly, I do like the beauty of the displays, but find it hard to think about the misery it took for them to get here. Like they say about sausage…if you like eating it, don’t visit a sausage factory.

We headed out onto Columbus Avenue, into the warm sun, and bustling crowd of living creatures.

1phant

4 thoughts on “Day of the Long-Dead

  1. Exactly! The NHM has always creeped me out … except for the giant whale! Columbus Avenue is infinitely more life-affirming. Poor alarmed elephants, frozen in their last moments like the people in Pompeii!

  2. I’m with you on this. I have a similar antipathy toward zoos. (Hey, teacher, leave those animals alone!)

    As an alternative, I know an artist who can provide lively and fun paintings of squirrels, hammerhead sharks, etc. No hunting required.

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