March 3, 2016

Big Things to See at the American Museum of Natural History

Field notes from a 3-mile walk inside the American Museum of Natural History

Most everyone has fond memories of field trips, those exciting adventures that promise escape from regular school. Art museums, aquariums, and historic sites are frequent destinations, but often the most thrilling trip for school age children is the natural history museum. Dinosaurs! Taxidermied bears! Dioramas! How lucky are the children of New York to have the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) as a field trip destination. As the largest natural history museum in the world, the monumental building on New York's Central Park West is overwhelming in its abundance of treasures. Plus, there's a bonus planetarium!

If you were to visit the AMNH on a weekday morning, plan on sharing the museum with hundreds and hundreds of young, often loud, and overly stimulated school-age New Yorkers. You will find them in every room, in every gallery, in every remote square foot of the museum. If quiet contemplation of large mammals from other continents is your thing, then I highly recommend a visit later on a weekday after lunch. In the late afternoon, some children will still be around, of course, but as they are generally shorter than adults, at least you can look over their heads. And, anyway, the exhibits are big. In many cases, very, very big.

Titanosaur, Wallach Orientation Center, 4th floor.

A big new addition to the museum is a colossal fiberglass cast of a 70-ton dinosaur discovered in the Patagonia desert in Argentina in 2012. The creature, a young one of uncertain gender, cannot even fit in the room in which it is housed. The colossal size and the unusual shape of the Titanosaur add to an ever-curious field of scientific inquiry. Several of the original fossils, including an eight-foot femur, are on display.

Margaret Mead's Cape and Thumb Stick, Margaret Mead Hall of Pacific Peoples, 3rd floor. 

The famous anthropologist Margaret Mead (1901-1978) was so in demand during her later years that one of her assistants booked her appearances for years in advance. This tidbit may be gleaned from a video that plays in the introductory room in the Margaret Mead Hall of Pacific Peoples. Known for her groundbreaking fieldwork in Samoa and New Guinea, Mead worked in the museum from 1926 until her death in 1978, serving as a curator for many of those years. Mead was often seen in her dramatic red cape carrying her forked walking stick.

Rapa Nui (Easter Island) Moai Cast, Margaret Mead Hall of Pacific Peoples, 3rd floor. 

Thoughts of Easter Island always conjure the great row of monolithic figures known as moai. Made famous in the movie Night at the Museum, this particular Easter Island deity is based on a cast made during a museum expedition in 1934-1935.

Aztec Stone of the Sun, Hall of Mexico and Central America, 2nd floor.

Mistakenly thought to refer to the Aztec calendar, the sacrificial stone depicts sun symbols of Aztec cosmic mythology. The original stone is housed in the National Anthropology Museum in Mexico City.

Hall of Asian Mammals, 2nd floor. 

A group of Asian elephants serves as the centerpiece in a beautiful wood paneled room with Asian-inspired windows. As with many other animals represented in the museum, the beauty is accompanied by the poignant reminder that many of these creatures are endangered.

Theodore Roosevelt Rotunda, 1st floor. 

The entrance of the museum on Central Park West opens up in the rotunda. Stop and pause here before entering other galleries. At the center is a dramatic encounter between a Barosaurus dinosaur, protecting its offspring, from an aggressive Allosaurus. The walls are covered with large murals depicting Theodore Roosevelt's public life and expeditions along with quotations from his writings.
The Great Canoe, Grand Gallery, 1st floor. 

Occupying the Grand Gallery, the 63-foot-long canoe embodies the artistry of the Native American peoples of the Northwest Coast. The canoe, carved in the 1870s, is in the room adjacent to the Hall of Northwest Coast Indians. The dimly lit hall dates from 1900, the oldest in the museum, and highlights the collections and research of one of the museum's most famous curators, anthropologist Franz Boas (1858-1942).

The Dzanga-Sangha Rain Forest exhibit, Hall of Biodiversity, 1st floor. 

The dense rain forest in Central African Republic serves as home to many forest elephants, gorillas, and other species. The creation of a national park and forest reserve helps protect the inhabitants of the forest from encroaching agricultural and mining operations.

Giant Blue Whale. Milstein Family Hall of Ocean Life, 1st floor. 

The 94-foot fiberglass model of a great blue whale continues to dazzle as one of the most famous symbols of the museum. Again, the replica serves as a reminder of the fragility of the species.

Big Bang Theater, Cullman Hall of the Universe, Rose Center for Earth and Space, Lower Level. 

On the lower section of the Hayden Sphere, viewers can stand and look down into a concave screen to watch a presentation about the birth of the universe. Narrated by actor Liam Neeson, the brief film explores the stunning cosmic explosion and the mysteries of "dark matter." The exit leads to a spiral pathway that marks milestones in the history of the universe, including the extinction of the dinosaurs.

On this youthful, 3-mile walk in the American Museum of Natural History, we have come full circle.

Subway Mosaics, outside the museum, entrance to museum on Lower Level. 

If visiting the museum via subway, enjoy the mosaics representing extinct and living animals.

Location: Central Park West at 79th Street
Best time to visit: Weekday afternoons.
Food: Museum Food Court on the lower level and 3 cafes.
Museum website:
Open daily from 10 am-5:45 pm except on Thanksgiving and Christmas
Subway: B (weekdays), C at 81st St.

Images by Walking Off the Big Apple from February 25, 2016.

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