Party Animals

When I was much younger, going to the Natural History Museum was a magnificent thing.  I remember the rooms full of sepia-colored bones – antediluvian and towering – that flattered a child’s desire for dragons:  the monsters that predated books and maps.

I remember the gemstone hall, bristling with chunks of earth encrusted with minerals that grew like a brutal, crystalline forest.  The raw colors gleamed in the dark room – prisms born out of the hidden contractions that convulsed the continents, while the dragons, swathed in steam, trampled the visible lands above.

There were the marble walls that chilled the rooms in a geological frost.   The inanimate circulation of alloys and sediment ran through the high arches in a colorful map – the cartography of ancient stone.

In the lobby was a concrete tank.  Lying in it was a rooster fish:  a ribbon with fins and gills; its small mouth open to protest its isolation.  It was a pelagic ghost; its colors left behind in the ocean that had tossed it onto the Catalina shore over three decades ago. Floating in a viscous pool of ethanol, its reptilian silhouette was a reminder of sailors’ terrors and broken ships in medieval seas.

And there were dioramas.  The dark corridors reached into mountains, trees, plains and oceans holding displays for the window shoppers who stood in front of the glass, willing the animals to live again.  I was always among them, wishing that the painted hooves would stir, the cloth muscles twitch, the throats scraped empty to be full of voice once more. 

Elephants Beckoning

I listened for the lapping of arctic waves:

Salty Sea Lions

for sand dunes collapsing in the wind, or for the cold, distant bark of foxes:  the clarion call of a barbaric harvest.

Waiting For A Sound...

I remember liking in particular a group of deer:  I wanted to walk through the glass, a 20th centuryAlice, and join their quiet family.  I would rest on the pine needles, soft and broken, the green and fragrant oils released.   I would listen to the breeze circulate through the trees like the sea.  I would look beyond the forest into the painted background, into the mists floating from the sky like an astral benediction.

Home Away From Home

I revisited these silent panoramas recently.  Besides the visitors who watched and waited, I noticed another group.  Setting up tables and chairs, lighting fixtures, cloths and carpets, they weren’t conscious of the quiet groupings.  It seemed that someone had thought it would be an engaging idea to hold an event in these corridors, and these movers had work to do.

What would that party be like?  It would be bright and brash:  the gleam of faces, dresses and wine would reflect in the animals’ glass eyes like a garish frieze.  It would be loud: the crash of laughter, music, silverware and mingling footsteps making a brutal sound  in those old and holy landscapes.

It would be out of place.

And later, when the lights and voices were silenced, there would be a pause – a collective intake of breaths, a nervous exultation running between each glass-held display:  a joyous exchange of plans long denied.  There would be a shivering of branches, a commotion of leaves…scrapings on ice and earth.  And then, should anyone peer into those cages, that curious person would find them empty, as each animal vanished into the ether and vapors beyond the paint to continue their disrupted lives.

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17 responses to “Party Animals

  1. You have exactly captured it.
    Thanks for the memory!
    Lynda

  2. My cousin’s wedding reception was in a museum, but the tables were set up under a giant whale skeleton, not among the dioramas.

    At the Denver Museum of Nature and Science tiny gnomes are painted into the background dioramas: http://www.flickr.com/photos/kslovesbooks/5179685311/

  3. I’ve always had mixed feelings about natural history museums: on the one hand, they are meant to educate the public about a world they would otherwise never see, and they are undoubtedly works of art; on the other hand, the dioramas are made from the remains of dead animals, many of them killed just for that purpose. I know animal-rights people who refuse to visit natural history museums—“How would you feel if they mounted human corpses like that?” (Well, they did, in that recent exhibition of human anatomical sculptures.) I understand how they feel, but think they are missing out on something beautiful, and better even than zoos. You caught that “something” and described it wonderfully. Well done again, Aubrey!

  4. Perfect! It transported me back to my childhood days. Going to the Natural History Museum (the predecessor to the gnome-y one) was always the biggest treat for me.

  5. Hi,
    Loved your post. I enjoy going through not only Natural History Museums but all Museums, they are so full of information, and it doesn’t matter how many times I go to a Museum I always learn something new.

  6. Lauri – thank you; for a place full of age, bones, remains and – let’s face it – things long dead, this museum is a lovely, lovely place.

    pixilated – I’m glad I was able to – the memory was an elusive thing; hard to pin down. But I do know that besides the library, this museum was my favorite place to lose myself in.

    Peg o’ T – hey, there’s a gnome on that dinosaur’s back! And that’s gnome laughing matter! (that’s an old Aubrey joke – but I never get tired of it)

    Hangaku – you know, it never occured to me how the animals got there; they are probably right – unfortunately. But I also agree with you, these dioramas are sites of learning and imagination and all kinds of journeys for a whimsical mind.

    LT – I always like to watch children in museums – natural, science or art. They positively beam with wonder!

    magsx2 – hello! Isn’t it great how that happens? The source is the same: the painting, the animal, the display…but your mind changes, has moved a little more on its axis, and is ready to absorb some new kind of light.

  7. I’m a vegetarian, so I’m still stuck in that space that makes my throat close up a little, that space Hangaku mentioned, but still I’m in awe of your use of language. I love the way you paint a scene, using words as if they were very specific colors. I read your posts very slowly because I don’t want to miss anything. I felt the history and the beauty here a bit more than the sadness. I think that’s quite a feat. Thanks for letting me see this place through your eyes.

  8. You address childhood memories for me, too, evoking both the eery and the awesome. I loved the natural history museums in Frankfurt and London when I was a child … and I am not so sure these anmials in their showcaes do not look back at you when I visit as an adult.
    Life and death entwined .. maybe that’s why?
    This text – and your use of language – are striking!

  9. i just found your blog and love it! the pictures are amazing 🙂

  10. I love museums – as a child I looked forward to our once a year trip to the Australian Museum in Sydney – now I’m lucky enough to live in the city of the Smithsonian.

  11. authenticcopy

    Love this post. Reminds me of a series of photographs one of my favorite artists, Hiroshi Sugimoto, did, in which he photographed those museum dioramas in a way that made them feel real.
    http://www.google.com/imgres?imgurl=http://www.mitterrand-cramer.com/Artists/Sugimoto/images/sugimoto_historyoflife_Earliest_Human_Relatives_72dpi_20cm_(yg).JPG&imgrefurl=http://www.mitterrand-cramer.com/Artists/Sugimoto/pages/16.html&h=452&w=567&sz=29&tbnid=sxvBvXSvim2NZM:&tbnh=90&tbnw=113&prev=/search%3Fq%3Dhiroshi%2Bsugimoto%26tbm%3Disch%26tbo%3Du&zoom=1&q=hiroshi+sugimoto&usg=__mdq-v1p_-lWvVonQF_zqOBEeSTI=&sa=X&ei=WgYnTs-IBImesQPk5Ln8CA&ved=0CFkQ9QEwBg&dur=19

  12. Barbara Rodgers

    A natural history museum does seem like a odd place to have a party, although I remember taking our kids to an aquarium for a reception for an astronaut once so many years ago… Lovely lyrical writing, Aubrey… I love deer and am always delighted to come across their little “nests” or “beds” when walking in the woods. I imagine them lying there when people aren’t around, looking much like the diorama in your museum portrays them.

  13. there’s a new trend of holding weddings/receptions in museums. i can’t remember which magazine profiled it but I’m certain it’s popularity instantly increased!

  14. I haven’t been to our provincial museum since my kids were…well – kids. But the dioramas have always been my favourite part. I too pretend the animals are still alive and I’m with them in their habitat. Those imaginings come to mind when I am hiking because I’m not likely to ever see any of them in such intimate moments, just by the fact that I would be there.

    I don’t know about more exotic critters, but I’m sure that in North America there are enough animals killed by vehicles and trains that there would never be any need to kill an animal for the express purpose of creating a diarama. And, of course, most of them are legally hunted. I hope I’m not being overly optimistic, but I believe these displays are extremely important towards giving people, especially children, the opportunity to get a glimpse of what nature feels like. So many will never otherwise experience that.

    You have such a way with words. I love reading your posts.

  15. Natural History Museums never get old. I remember loving going to the Cleveland Natural History Museum every chance I got growing up. 🙂

  16. the imagination of a child is a wonderful thing. i find as i look back to glimpses of childhood memories, they feel as if someone else lived them.

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