Learning!

My friend Børrke, who is getting married in a little over a month, had a bachelorette party. Normally bachelorette parties involve strippers and penii-shaped straws and hats and I dislike these festivities intensely. Luckily Børrke’s sister Blürrr made way better plans. The day started with a private tour of the Museum of Natural History. Something called MuseumHack, created to encourage people to visit museums and see all the awesome stuff housed inside without being a tourist or feeling obligated because they have kids. It’s a great idea. I highly recommend it if you live in or are visiting New York. Our guide was a lovely young man named Jared who works during the week teaching children at the Bronx Zoo (swoon). He knew we were a classy bunch from the second we arrived with Børrke. She was sporting a tiara, a pink sash that said “Bachelorette,” a t-shirt that said “Feyoncé” and a pimp cup emblazoned with “Ho Fo Sho” that she was required to carry around.

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Yeah. A group of non-drunk (yet), well-educated, mouthy dames. Good luck Jared. He did a stellar job I must say. Jared took us from interesting exhibit to interesting exhibit telling us all kinds of things we would not have known from reading the little placards. One of the things we learned:

Right after the ticket counter, everyone always goes right into the African Mammals Room so it’s always packed, but the Asian Mammals Room is right off to the side and it’s never packed, so go into there. The taxidermied mammals in the Asia Hall are equally awesome and in surprisingly good condition considering that they were mounted in the early 1900s. The primary animal collector/taxidermist for the museum was a man named Carl Akeley and he’s a swell guy and all, but his back-up guy was a SUPER-special fella named Walter Potter who, in his free time, would make anthropomorphic tableaus featuring kittens and bunnies. Like this:

Rabbits’ Village School, Circa 1888

And this:

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Now the reason many taxidermied things previous to Carl Akeley were absolutely terrible was that the industry used pre-built stands for each beast and it was irrelevant whether the animal skin fit over the mount, they would tug it and yank it and make it fit. That’s fine and all that but the problem with that is that you end up with pieces like this:

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Which are not great, Bob. What Carl Akeley did was immediately after he shot an animal he took extremely detailed measurements and mailed those back to the museum so a form could be created. The smaller forms could be made from clay and paste, but the larger ones like the elephants were hollow iron covered in papier-mache. When the animal’s skin got home it could be stretched over a form made especially for it, a one-of-a-kind. They also created the diorama around the animals so it appeared like they were in their natural habitat. Jared said that due to the curved walls and ceilings of the diorama rooms, Renaissance painting techniques were implemented. All of this combined helped to make the animals in the dioramas extra-realistic and they have totally stood the test of time. Jared then had us pretend to be water buffalo and tigers and elephants in the middle of the Asian Mammals section. I was a water buffalo and I was promptly eaten by a tiger so I had to lay on the floor and be dead while another member of the bachelorette party pretended to be an enormous feline consuming me. Way better than a male stripper.

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Other things we learned from Jared:

  • The gigantor boat that is hanging from the ceiling in one of the halls? It used to sit on the floor and it was filled with sand. At that time there were also cats that patrolled the museum taking care of the mice. You may not know this but cats use sand for their litter box so one of the tasks of the museum workers was to clean the kitty poop out of the boat every day.
  • The big blue whale that the museum is famous for was incorrectly rendered until fairly recently. It was based on a big ole dead whale that had washed up on the shore and was in the process of decomposing. In the last few years the scientists decided, hey, maybe we should paint it, you know, BLUE and not gray since blue is the color it’s supposed to be and maybe throw a bellybutton on up there so it’s vaguely accurate? Yeah, let’s do that.
  • Sea otters are not cute and delightful all the time. Yes, they hold hands so they do not float away from their beloveds (squee) and they have a pocket in their fur for their favorite rock (additional squee) but sometimes darkness befalls the sea otter. Otters used to be all the way up and down the Pacific Coast but due to that horrible time when they were almost hunted to extinction they are now only in pockets. When the teenage males come of age and there are no females available, the males get ornery and horny (hornery?). Aaaaaaaand then they rape baby seals.

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  • In the oldest room in the museum (museums are very expensive and are often built over many years) the Pacific Northwest Collection is housed. It smells really good in there because of all the giant cedar sculptures. There are also murals on the walls depicting Native American village life. Recently there was a bit of a flood on an upper floor and some of the collection was destroyed which is terrible but also a blessing in disguise. Jared showed us one mural that had been damaged in the flood, and a good thing it was. It was called “The Dog-Eating Ceremony” and it was so very clearly painted by some white guy in 1860 who had no idea what these “savages” were doing. On the outer edges are various tribesmen carving something into stone tablets a là Moses on Mount Sinai and in the middle is a woman about to start chewing on the back end of a still-alive poodle. I mean, really. White people, this is ridiculous. The ignorance, it is palpable.
  • Why are there only skyscrapers in the Financial District and Midtown in Manhattan? Well, it’s because the bedrock in both those places is 30 feet below the surface. Elsewhere on the island it is 100 feet below the surface. No one wants to dig that deep so areas like the Upper West Side and Chelsea get normal-heighted buildings.
  • Speaking of bedrock, you know the humongous iron meteorite that is in the middle of the museum? It’s not sitting on the floor. The meteorite is so heavy if it was sitting on the floor it would smash through all the levels of the building. It’s sitting on a giant pillar that goes directly into the bedrock under the museum. If you were granted permission to go into the floors beneath the museum you would see the pillar. Apparently it’s painted red.

Jared took through many other sections. He had us pretend to worship a giant stone in the gem section and then since we were in the minerals and metals section he gave us all Hershey’s nuggets because we were all his little “golden nuggets.” He had us take the best picture of diorama testicles in the primates section and the winner got astronaut ice cream from the planetarium gift shop. This was so damn fun. If you have someone coming in from out of town or you need to come up with a cool gift for that hard-to-shop person, definitely consider Museum Hack. It’s a jolly good time had by all.

Bonus: a picture of Børrke sharing some imaginary liquor from her “Ho Fo Sho” goblet with the gorilla bust. That one is going in the album.

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