A Tale of Time at the American Museum of Natural History

The light within the atrium of the American Museum of Natural History reflects off the smiling faces of its young visitors. They ooh and aah at the dinosaurs that greet them and pull their parent’s arms to see more. It is the dichotomy of life and death that makes this museum unique- young souls fawning over fossils and preserved animals.

As a New York University student, the American Museum of Natural History serves as an academic deep-dive into social behavior, historical hierarchies and technological revolutions. My museum tour begins in a dimply lit room, only illuminated by taxidermy rhinoceroses and zebras.

Entering into Akeley Hall of African Mammals is best described by Donna Haraway’s, Teddy Bear Patriarchy Taxidermy of Eden, New York City, 1908–1936: “African Hall offers a unique communion with nature at its highest and yet most vulnerable moment, the moment of the interface of the Age of Mammals with the Age of Man.” It is here where visitors can experience the collection of Carl Akeley, a pioneer of taxidermy and biological preservation. The dioramas that display Akeley’s work show more than just his African trophies, they also illustrate major social themes of the twentieth-century.

Through his work, Akeley sought to tell the truth in nature and give a “peephole into the jungle.” He did so by paying attention to the artistic composition of the displays. The desire to provide an accurate recreation of an African habitat along with the twentieth-century ideals that he was experiencing, Akeley told stories within his dioramas. The characters within the glass panels consist of mammals nursing, being aggressive and relaxing. They tell tales of male and female labor roles that persisted in both the animal and human kingdoms. By delving deeper into the history behind this history, the masculine expose of animals that Akeley consciously juxtaposed becomes clear.

Although the work of Akeley has remained static for over a century, the museum itself has undergone technological advancements that African Hall has shied away from. Just one floor down from African Hall is the Irma and Paul Milstein Family Hall of Ocean Life. Equipped with CGI capabilities and bright, moving images, the two exhibits differ in appearance drastically.

This comparison poses a question of how modern-day messages are encoded into our lives. As these dioramas act as “meaning machines,” is meaning lost if the technological advances are stunted? While CGI and advanced technology encompasses the Ocean life and Biodiversity exhibitions, small written plaques and hand-painted scenery compliment African Hall. Despite being low-tech compared to other exhibits, African Hall provides an essential, almost untouched, display of twentieth-century man versus nature ideologies.