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A Morning At the Museum With Teddy Roosevelt

In the lower level of the American Museum of Natural History, I was having trouble paying attention to the First Deputy Mayor Patti Harris. My mind wandered to the press conference-y backdrop behind her, which covered the entrance to the “Hall of...

by Ben Richmond
Oct 26 2012, 3:00pm

In the lower level of the American Museum of Natural History, I was having trouble paying attention to the First Deputy Mayor Patti Harris. My mind wandered to the press conference-y backdrop behind her, which covered the entrance to the "Hall of Planet Earth."

As various sponsors and public officials were thanked for their support, I kept picturing the Theodore Roosevelt re-enactor bursting through the wall like a high school football team, and loudly declaring that the renovation was "Bully! Just bully!" The deputy mayor extolled the museum's 21st Century tools and technology and compared Mayor Bloomberg to TR, and I began to suspect that the re-enactor wasn't around at all.

Can’t you just picture him coming through the wall like the Kool-Aid Man? Oh, that’s Ellen V. Futter, president of the museum.

But the media preview for the full reopening after a three-year, $40 million restoration of the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial and Hall of North American Mammals still drew the luminaries. Representing the mayor was the aforementioned deputy mayor; representing the governor was Kenneth Adams from the Empire State Development Corporation; City Councilman Domenic M. Recchia Jr. spoke on behalf of City Council Speaker Christine Quinn. Even Theodore Roosevelt IV—a man who didn't resemble his great-great grandfather as much as he looked like a very nice, normal guy—was in attendance.

Theodore Roosevelt IV on the right with president of the museum Ellen V. Futter on the left and a statue of President Roosevelt center.

Compared to a place like Chicago, where city officials rarely spoke in complete sentences or public until Rahm Emanuel showed up, everyone seemed very media savvy and on message. Though the event focused on the museum's past, all of the researchers and museum officials gracefully moved from venerating the Rough Rider to mentioning how the museum has changed and is staying vital this decade.

I loaded my American Museum of Natural History App onto my phone the night before in preparation. In theory once your phone syncs with the museum's wifi, the app will guide you through the halls to either exhibits of your choosing, or through a theme-driven tour. In spite of my best efforts, the Roosevelt Tour could never locate my position, and I was left scrolling and clicking on exhibits to find the blurbs, the brevity of which either keeps the app from being too distracting or reinforces the idea that it's hard to go into too much depth at a museum.

The other reinventions are fairly subtle, presumably because oldness is pretty much the point of a museum. While this is obviously the point of history museums, the AMNH has a rather unique challenge even among history museums. Maybe it's best summed up by Holden Caulfield, who when reminiscing about the museum in The Catcher and The Rye says, "The best thing, though, in that museum was that everything always stayed right where it was. Nobody’d move." Maybe the fact that Holden Caufield mentions the museum at all sums up the challenge even better. Two Ben Stiller movies in and it's still a beloved institution, and the weight of that past is both an asset that comes with some challenges.

Museums are big, old institutions that seem to be vestiges of another age—the age of big, old institutions running everything and deal in physical objects that are often times taken from their native countries or people without too much consideration as to how those people might feel about it. Throwing their weight behind Theodore Roosevelt, all while allowing that he had some notions best left in the past, brings this tension to the foreground.

TR was very much a product of his times. But true to the form of doing everything robustly, Roosevelt held some wrong-headed notions pretty robustly, too. As Alicia Puglionesi noted last week, the birth of environmentalism is closely tied to long-discredited notions of race and eugenics via a logic that doesn't seem to compute on this, opposite side of the 20th Century.

Museum archeology curator Dave Thomas mentioned how Roosevelt's love of North America's indigenous species was long coupled with an indifference to North America's indigenous people, and policies during his presidency mostly aimed for assimilation. However after his presidency in 1913, Thomas noted, Roosevelt witnessed a Hopi tribe dancing with rattlesnakes. "You might have seen it on Youtube," Thomas noted.

According to Thomas, Roosevelt—a one-time Dakota Territory rancher—marveled that the Hopi dancers could be draped in rattlesnakes without being bitten and asked "What's up with the snakes?" to which the Hopi Indians replied, "Oh we talked to them. They aren't angry." As Thomas tells it, the snake dance leads Roosevelt to conclude that maybe some things are best left out of the melting pot. It sounds like a pretty convenient story for a liberal Upper West Side institution to have in its pocket, but because Thomas is a historian, I'll give him the benefit of the doubt.

Elsewhere in the museum, reference was made to the collection of specimen, and the ways the practice has changed over time. While talking about the goals Center for Biodiversity and Conservation, the director of their Pacific program, Chris Filardi, mentioned how when the museum collect specimen now, they are not only cognizant of population levels and general stewardship of the species, but also of the local people's relationships to the animals. In deference to an indigenous group in British Columbia that held the grizzly bear in high esteem, researchers didn't even collect tissue and blood samples with the old bag-tag-take-tissue-and-blood-from and release method, instead relying on fur samples gathered from trees where grizzly bears rub their backs.

Nevertheless, Filardi pointed out that the continuous collection of samples is an integral part of the museum's research program, even if it no longer happens by gunning down big game and now involves a lot of invertebrates. "By having samples collected continuously, we were able to track the level of mercury as it appeared in animals, for instance," Filardi said. "It lets you have a video, rather than just a snapshot."

The snapshot, itself a classic form that has been reinvented in the digital age, lives on in the museums famous dioramas, even as the signage is modified to reflect how we understand now mammalian behavior. Ross MacPhee, mammalogy curator, pointed out that while the Alaska Moose Diorama still depicts two males fighting it out while a female looks on, the spoils might not go to victor. The signage now points out that if the cow finds both males lacking, she exerts some choice by emit a low moaning sound that signals to the other males (those painted onto the backdrop, for instance) that she's still single and ready to mingle (my phrasing, but basically that's it). Naturally MacPhee is enough of a scientist to follow this up by mentioning in passing that it's not really choice per say, but you know.

The animals frozen in place can seem like the world's saddest zoo, but MacPhee raised some good points. The dioramas rather theatrical nature give you insight to a single moment with a complete and meticulously accurate background and give you a pretty close perspective. If you think about it, most of the time zoos just give you a view of very sleepy—albeit alive—animals.

Early in the morning, while the press filtered into the Roosevelt rotunda and drank coffee under the bucking barosaurus and admired newly-renovated murals depicting TR's life, I had a chance to talk to George Dante, the taxidermist in charge of restoring scientifically-accurate colors to the North American mammal specimen in the dioramas, which had been fading under fluorescent lights since the 1940s.

For Dante, working on the restoration was "a dream come true." Just as Theodore Roosevelt looms large in the world of politicians, the world of taxidermy has its own giants, whose work Dante was in charge of restoring to their original glory. "Carl Akeley, James L. Clark, Robert Rockwell," he listed the giants upon whose taxiderming shoulders he had to honor of standing. "These men inspired me; they're who I modeled my business after—my work after."

And now he was in charge of re-coloring their famous specimen. Ever a student of the form, Dante spoke with admiration for the work done to depict the muscles accurately. Discovering that taxidermy is a discipline with its own masters and innovators shouldn't have been surprising, but I get a great deal of enjoyment whenever I get a glimpse into a vocational culture that I know nothing about. It's like seeing Narnia.

I asked Dante if any of the animals were more challenging than others, and he said they all presented their own challenges but for him the brown bears were the hardest. True to the theme of the day, part of it was scale—they're big, all right—but moreover, "they're iconic. They just had to be spectacular."

Talking with Dante really pointed to what a long and productive life the museum has had from its founding in the Roosevelt home on East 20th Street up to the present. If you've got the best taxidermy of the '30s and '40s, the best taxidermists of the 21st Century have a pretty easy job. Likewise, with 5 million visitors last year, the museum is in good shape. Like dyeing a 70-year-old brown bear pelt, modernizing the museum is necessary for the AMNH to continue to fulfill its purposes, with a subtle touch to stay current enough.

Maybe Theodore Roosevelt—the president born in New York City who loved nature enough to become known as the "Conservation President"; the anti-immigrant who noted that "a great democracy must be progressive or it will soon cease to be great or a democracy"; the first president to ride in a car but who is depicted on an (newly-restored) equestrian statue on Central Park West; the asthmatic outdoorsman—is the perfect symbol.

Or maybe getting home to discover that the Theodore Roosevelt re-enactor I was searching for that morning had been at the museum on Tuesday to do a reddit AMA (which actually was rescheduled) is an even better one.

Top via. All images via Ben Richmond


Theodore Roosevelt