Museum of Natural History

When A Visual Joy Makes Your Heart Beat

Archive image,   1911

Archive image, 1911

In the delight-filled treasure house of the American Museum of Natural History in NYC, I was sketching. Rather than careening from room to room, snapping shots, I chose the slower route. 

The curled horn of a mountain goat in the Hall of North American Mammals fascinated and occupied a half hour. A rearing Alaskan Brown Bear, all fourteen feet in height, filled the hour’s balance. Wandering along, enjoying my freedom and relishing the visual delights, I was wholly unprepared for what lay ahead. 

A short flight upstairs, I entered the dark Hall of Biodiversity where examples of all kinds of life were displayed, rather, splayed over the plane of an enormous wall. An assemblage of seeds, strung as though on a laundry line, caught my eye. They were arranged from tiniest mustard seed to largest floating palm seed and others of the tropical nut family.

Such minute details of life echo the minutiae of my own day-to-day existence. The essential but seemingly insignificant, yet from which life can come. I loved this display and wanted to explore it. But all the while I sketched it, a mysterious sound tugged my hand away from the page and moved my feet on to find its source.

And there, entering into an upper balcony of another vast, barely lit hall, I came eye to eye with a life-sized blue whale, suspended, plunging, in mid-air. Wow! The space swelled with the sound of recorded whale calls, the ceiling rippled with the light one could imagine seeing from the ocean depths if one looked up at the surface from below. A completely different perspective! I marveled at this sudden spectacle, this immediate and immense experience so contrary to the tiny array of delicate seeds with their comforting familiarity.

After the initial heart-racing surprise, I looked and feasted and finally drew. How to squeeze the impossible giant onto my landscape double spread? I at least had the luxury of pondering, unlike drawing from living, moving creatures. At just the right angle, the plunging whale’s curve of tail managed to fit the far corner of the other page. A grand moment, captured, later to be completed, colored, pondered some more when back on familiar turf.

Later, I stumbled on the story of the man who made the model, himself a larger than life character. During the Depression, desperate to obtain work at the Museum of Natural History, but with no jobs available, he volunteered. Sweeping the halls after hours, he persevered in this humble task for over a year. Then, his presence familiar, when a model whale was planned and he offered to take on the task, his offer was accepted. He labored for months to make one of only two such models in the US, still volunteering. His labors were rewarded when a paying position was found. With increasing prominence in the museum, he was trusted to set out on daring dinosaur searches and he became one of the leading players in the dinosaur bone wars. Behemoth fossils were coveted by the great museums of the world with almost espionage tactics that saw team racing team to a find. 

On a pivotal expedition to the Gobi Desert, he found fossilized dinosaur nests with intact eggs. This was the lynchpin in proving that dinosaurs were in fact reptiles. The fame this engendered landed him the position of Museum Director. And on this swaggering, iconic-hat-wearing, romantic figure was based the movie character of Indiana Jones. This larger than life whale sculptor.

My little seed of a life seems so far from the swaggering adventurer. But I paused long enough to draw and being curious, pursued the story, and a curtain was raised on the impossibly large. I squeezed it on the page after all.