Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Picturing the Museum

The American Museum of Natural History has an online collection of historical photographs, Picturing the Museum. Here's one photograph:


[Children viewing North West Coast Canoe, 77th Street Foyer. Photograph by Alex J. Rota, 1962. American Museum of Natural History Library, image number 328835. Click here to get to a larger version.]

This photograph reminds me of what I take to be the essence of museum-going: looking. A museum is for looking. The buzzword interactive requires, really, no more than attention and its object. Note, for instance (in the larger version of the photograph), the expression on the face of the boy on the far side of the canoe (second from the right). Can one doubt that he's already planning to build this canoe at home?

And speaking of looking: look at how these children are dressed. Like little ladies and gentlemen, as people used to say. They're representing their school! Even the boy with his shirttail sticking out is wearing what appear to be dress pants. The girls' white socks and shoes remind me of First Communion wear. Are those trenchcoats on the boys, or yellow raincoats? Only a color photograph knows for sure.

The Great Canoe is one of the best known objects in the Museum of Natural History. It's part of Holden Caulfield's museum reverie, an element in his celebration of the permanence of museum displays (a variation, I now realize, on "Ode on a Grecian Urn"):

Then you'd pass by this long, long Indian war canoe, about as long as three goddam Cadillacs in a row, with about twenty Indians in it, some of them paddling, some of them just standing around looking tough, and they all had war paint all over their faces. There was one very spooky guy in the back of the canoe, with a mask on. He was the witch doctor. He gave me the creeps, but I liked him anyway.

J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in The Rye (1951)
He gave me the creeps too, long before I read Salinger, and much later in adulthood too. He was a scary guy. The canoe is now displayed minus its people. The New York Times tells that story, quoting curator Peter M. Whiteley: “I suppose some people will miss the Indians, just as some people miss Pluto.” Too true.

comments: 2

Stephen said...

Thanks for a great post.

Closer to my home, the paleontology section at the Royal Ontario Museum (which we called "the dinosaurs") was always an engaging visit. I believe the exhibit has been largely unaltered for several decades.

Margaret Atwood's Life Before Man has a character who maintains that area of the museum.

There is also a prominent Haida totem pole at the museum entrance.

The Haida today, though few in number, seem to fight well above their weight class in trying to preserve what remains of their island forests.

Michael Leddy said...

Thanks for sharing your museum reverie, Stephen. At a nearby art museum, I even like it that the guard never changes. He's been there for perhaps twenty years.

I thought for a moment today that Boing Boing had a post on your museum, but it's the Royal Alberta Museum.