By the Book


By the Book

A Gathering of Wonders: Behind the Scenes at the American Museum of Natural History

by Joseph Wallace

St. Martin's, 288 pp., $24.95

Before Jurassic Park was the end-all, be-all in dinosaurs, the American Museum of Natural History held the mantle. For those who don't care for New York landmarks or who remain unaware of the treasures to be found at this cool enclave abutting Central Park, take care, as Joseph Wallace's revelations and descriptions will leave you aching to step inside and get lost for an afternoon or two, airfares and hotel costs be damned.

My own relationship to the "Natural History Museum" (as I still improperly refer to it) and hence to this volume is a longstanding affair marked by a few particular attractions. My father imbued me on many a weekend with his fondness for the great Akeley Hall of African Mammals, a collection of stuffed lions, gorillas, gazelle, and other creatures that to this day leaves me breathless despite the apparent dust now coating their dead skins. Likewise, a tour of the Northwest Indian exhibits, where masks hang above dioramas of villages, lodges, and primitive salmon fishing operations, takes me back to a history I can recall from grade school but which has been lost to the Americas for more than a century.

Although these specific exhibits don't get much play in Wallace's account of what's in the museum and how most of it got there -- from around the globe, it's worth noting -- the author generally manages to convey the book's promised sense of wonderment. Largely missing, however, are the conflicts and tensions promised in his "behind the scenes" subtitle. As any student, formal or informal, of the sciences knows, modern theories of evolution and extinction, geology and anthropology have been attended by grievous, albeit necessary, disputes.

But where one expects to find fights taking place between various explorers, researchers, and administrators, we are left with a sanitized account of a team dedicated and working toward one single vision. In fact, my biggest complaint against Wallace is that his voice lacks the necessary friction and passion that ought to attend a book that brings to bear such a broad range of human feats on what has turned inarguably into a program of preservation. Through his recounting of how various exhibitions came together, the author fails to paint the loss of culture and critters alike in suitably dark colors. Although we learn of the loss of tribal rituals around the world, as well as the demise of the dodo and the passenger pigeon -- not to mention the dinosaurs -- Wallace manages to always come away with positive and hopeful lessons.

This is a bit like blaming a cheerleader for not joining the field of play, so perhaps it's best that Wallace chooses to remain on the sidelines when it comes to these broader political issues. By celebrating one of the most impressive natural history collections on Earth, as well as the people and benefactors who made it possible, Wallace serves as a more than suitable guide to the museum.

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