It occupies an 18-acre plot of land. It comprises over two dozen buildings, some barely visible anymore, in a mishmash of architectural styles. It houses various laboratories, a gigantic library, and rundown, labyrinthine, and poorly lit corridors strewn with skeletons and preserved animal specimens. Much of it has been neither updated nor renovated--nor perhaps even simply dusted--in decades. It's not the vast, ramshackle estate of a mad scientist in a horror film. It's the American Museum of Natural History on the Upper West Side.
Those who point out declining public and federal interest in such institutions may blame a lack of upkeep funds. A postmodern apologist for the AMNH's current state may advance the theory that the museum as a whole, by allowing much of itself to decay in an almost organic manner, is intentionally becoming one of its own exhibits. However, the simplest and most compelling explanation is an old adage slightly modified: "If nobody cares that it's broke, don't fix it."
In spite of rampant dilapidation, the AMNH attracts a stampede of nearly 14,000 visitors a day, or approximately 5 million yearly. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the only New York museum to top the AMNH in number of visitors, leads by only a small margin of about 4.8%. Manhattan's Museum of Modern Art and Guggenheim are comparatively deserted, drawing in approximately 2.5 million and 1.1 million visitors per year, respectively, in spite of their being more interesting and culturally relevant (and less depressing).
As at other museums, permanent installations account for the bulk (by our estimation 85%) of the AMNH's public offerings. These are augmented by special exhibitions that change periodically. Currently, the museum boasts 45 exhibit halls and six special exhibitions (one is an IMAX movie, another a space documentary narrated by astronomer Whoopi Goldberg).
Of course, only the regular displays are included with general admission tickets (suggested price: $19). It costs extra to see any of the special exhibits, implying that the permanent displays are the raison d'être of the American Museum of Natural History. "If you see nothing else," the ticket pricing structure seems to implore, "at least see those."
Upon entering the museum through an imposing Neo-Classical façade located a flight of stairs above street level on Central Park West, you have begun an experience that will prove by turns exhausting, depressing, disappointing, and disorienting.
The main entrance hall--the Theodore Roosevelt Rotunda--is a cavernous, sun-drenched room filled with the deafening buzz of hundreds of tourists, their multilingual shouts reverberating in the vast chamber. After navigating the throng, standing in line for several minutes, and shelling out money for a ticket, you pass into "Asian Mammals," whereupon you must pause for several seconds and adjust to the suddenly tomblike ambience. Once acclimated to the gloomy silence and crepuscular lighting, you are ready to commence a grim odyssey through hall after dilapidated hall, floor after rundown floor, of begrimed installations, crumbling dioramas, and criminally outdated graphic design.
In spite of the museum's impressive attendance numbers, many of the exhibition halls seem curiously bereft of browsers. When somebody is spotted, he is often plodding mechanically from one end of a gallery to the other, robotically going through the motions, never really examining any of the displays. As a result, the studious patron has the opportunity to be rewarded (or punished) with an undisturbed, close-up look at each exhibition room.
During your dreary pilgrimage through the museum, you will make certain observations about the galleries, such as that many are festooned with discarded pamphlets, food wrappers, remnants of industrial adhesive tape, and other assorted ephemera. You will notice unpleasant odors and sudden temperature shifts. You will see halfheartedly repaired floors, flaking paint, dust-coated windows, and illogically placed pieces of random furniture. Once you begin inspecting the installations, you will see desiccated landscapes, crudely constructed replicas of flora and fauna, discolored acrylic "ponds," lazy special effects, and hopelessly démodé typography, all of which are often displayed in dioramas. These dioramas are frequently fading, disintegrating, or incomplete. They are always lifeless and pedantic.
This is a museum that boasts many attendees (most of whom pay the full suggested admission), a sizable endowment (its financial records are available for the public, visible through a simple web search), and starring roles in Hollywood movies (e.g., Night at the Museum). It sounds glamorous and fabulous, but let's get down to brass tacks and take a look at what you, the museum patron, will really see during your visit.
^The Museum meant to depict a stream, but what remains now is nothing more than a rust-stained trench (suggesting not only poor exhibit maintenance, but also high iron content in the water that once ran through this tableau).
^The Museum's Grand Gallery as captured by this CRABNOX reporter. Subsequent visits to the Grand Gallery confirmed that it tends to be bereft of patrons. At the time this image was captured, the opposite side of the Grand Gallery featured an impressive natural mineral sample as well as an empty garment rack.
^Like many exhibit halls in the AMNH, this one features poorly maintained floors and a lack of viewers.
^On a display card, a reference to insects fails to explain the strange grey substance covering a fake apple. The reference to insects is rendered all the more confusing by the lack of any depiction of insects in the display.
^This image depicts one of the AMNH's most prized diamond specimens. Unfortunately, the stone is hard to discern since the Museum decided to place it against a yellowing swatch of carpet-like synthetic material.
^Relief map showing the principal environmental areas which influence the distribution of animal life. This relief map also displays cracks, tears, and smoke stains.
^The AMNH has a curious sense of time. For instance, it continues to display as "recent acquisitions" items obtained nearly a decade ago.
^Some sort of chemical reaction or mineral degradation is occurring here. The AMNH does not seem concerned that one of its mineral specimens is leaking a substance curiously similar to the powdery cheese substance packed in boxes of Kraft macaroni products.
^Many exhibits--a significant number of them--are disgracefully titled with cut-out cardboard letters attached to the walls of the museum with small nails.
^Always on the bleeding edge of farm technology, the AMNH shows us the "modern farmer." This caption, prominently displayed, accompanies a depiction of a man riding a tractor and is dated 1950.
^The Museum's depiction of the natural history of Asia involves a swami floating on a magic carpet (convincingly rendered with special effects).
^An unauthorized photograph (flashes forbidden!) captures the decor of the AMNH.