Yesterday I went to the American Museum of Natural History’s new exhibit on whales,Giants of the Deep. It was a worthwhile, albeit cramped, exhibit, where I learned about thewhale’s evolution from a land-based mammal into a full-time swimmer and smelled stinky ambergris. Yea, it was smelly.
The AMNH used to be my favorite NYC museum, hands-down, and I used to assume this was connected to my interest in animals (and science and history). I read and agreed with the critical review of the AMNH’s worship of Roosevelt as a conservationist, renewed in 2012, but my memories of exploring the AMNH remained untarnished. It had been a few years since I’d gone.
But my walk through the museum yesterday was complicated by my growing unease with natural history museums. I found that I had trouble looking at exhibitions of dead animals—of looking at these formerly living beings, now stuffed and mounted in disturbingly life-like positions, frozen in time and space for our use.
In this mood, I experienced the whale exhibit: the pictures and descriptions of nineteenth-century whaling ships taking down whales, the video clip of contemporary “scientific research” whale-hunting which has led us to the startling discovery that whales eat fish, the whale-tooth and whale-bone artifacts, the fossil record….
I’m not claiming some moral high ground, but it might be the case that I can no longer look at an animal exhibit without seeing the “real” animal suffering that went into the creation of these artifacts.
(Heartening news: Australia is challenging the loophole that Japan uses to continue whale hunting.)
EDIT: Here’s a Lanham’s piece on natural history museums which is further adding to my unease at what was once one of my favorite places.