A morning at the museum

by Josué Anderson R. Azevedo

Modern life has created a profound detachment of man in relation to the natural world. Over the last centuries, more and more people are living in big urban centers. Sometimes, the closest pristine forest can be almost an entire continent of distance. The serious consequence of this distancing is the indifference that it can create among people of such urban bubbles in relation to nature. Natural history museums are one of the ways of bringing a representation of the natural world closer to people again. Recently, members of our group went to the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York City. Its numerous halls depicting distinct aspects of the natural world such as the mounted animals and the fossil collections made me reflect about the wonders of the natural world that triggered my interest in science. My home town in Brazil does not have a natural history museum. Most of my initial inspiration to become a biologist came from books, movies and from going to the nearby farms and natural parks. Luckily, there is still a lot of natural areas surrounding Brasília. By the other side, for a kid living in New York, this museum is one of the few opportunities to fell more connected to nature, and even to the universe in general, as people in big cities generally do not have access to the wonders of the Milk Way, fainted by the urban lights. I can even remember of at least two great New Yorkers that revealed being inspired to become scientists after their visits to AMNH as kids: the astronomer Neil deGraisse Tyson and the evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould.

Some of the most remarkable parts of the AMNH are the halls of the Old World mammals, especially the African mammals. This incredible collection of dioramas depicting mounted animals is surrounded by a representation of their original habitats including soil and plants. Adding it to the amazingly painted backgrounds illustrating the original landscapes of Africa created an amazing impression of coming back to nature again. The illusion created by the incredible art work behind those dioramas can make you feel like travelling more than 8,000 km across the African landscape (Check out this video showing how the dioramas were created https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c1xNUrA0TZM).

Diorama showing big herds of mammals from the great African plains, where the foreground mounted animals and environments are perfectly matched with the painted background (image from Wikimedia Commons).

My particular preference for the African mammals hall is not only related to the art work, as there are dioramas in different halls representing the fauna of other continents, but it is also related to the fact that when I entered this section of the museum, I felt as if I were back to Africa again. Just 6 months ago, members of our lab were in an expedition to one of the most isolated places in Africa, surrounded by kilometers of the Miombo woodlands landscape in the Northern Mozambique. It was October and the landscape was extremely dry. Few big mammals were around, but just listening to lions roaring in the second day of the expedition was enough to activate any survival mechanisms we could even imagine we had within each one of us. Although our focus was to search for new species and populations of lizards, snakes and frogs, great part of our conversations were about what to do in the case of coming across to elephants, buffalo or lions. Not even few days after coming back to Sweden, most of these feelings and mental images of the Africa landscape have vanished. They were all replaced by the “real” words demands, such as taking the next bus to not get too late at some meeting, accomplishing deadlines and so on. Therefore, even for scientists that are able to go the natural places from time to time, museums are still an amazing place to recover our original excitement on the wonders of the natural word.

I almost wanted to say that this is was a diorama representing members of our group in an expedition in Africa, with a beautifully painted background representing the Miombo woodlands of Northern Mozambique.

Walking across the different halls of AMNH can be a little bit overwhelming in terms of the amount of information contained in there. It is for sure a place to go more than once. But I cannot forget to mention the fossil collections. Many biologists and geologists got interested in the natural world because of dinosaurs. I would say that there will be very few other places in the World in which it is possible to have such a good idea about the past diversity of our planet, from Tyrannosaurs to Triceratops, but also, there are several other groups of organisms with dinosaur like proportions the few people know about. For some dinosaurs, the representation is so complete that it is almost possible to follow all the developmental sequence of a species (ontogenesis), from the eggs to the adults as for the Triceratops. For others, it is just awesome to stand in front of this already gone creature and wonder how would it be to see a Tyrannosaur in real life hunting or scavenging. Just as a side note, Tyrannosaurs are amazingly inspirational creatures, from movies such as Jurassic Park to Night at the Museum (by the way, recorded at the AMNH), I would say they have inspired several kids to look for more information about dinosaurs and even probably to become biologists/geologists.

Just wondering about how amazing would it be to see this guy alive! Even 65 million years later, it is still somehow influencing the behaviour of some individuals of at least one species.

Finally, I was really surprised by the quality of the mounted reptiles and amphibians. Without fur or feathers, such animals can get a very weird aspect after mounted. But not at AMNH. They were the final proof about the extremely high quality of this museum. If you have the opportunity, check out their YouTube channel https://www.youtube.com/user/AMNHorg. They have a lot of information about the research done at the museum, its history and how the collections were built. It is for sure one of the wonders of our modern civilization. It is for sure a must go when visiting New York. You are going to feel connected to nature again.

Josué Anderson R. Azevedo is a PhD candidate at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden. He is interested in the biogeography of reptiles and amphibians and in general evolutionary biology.

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