When former slave Frederick Douglass arrived in New York City as a free man, he found himself in the midst of a mighty throng of people, surging to and fro between the lofty walls of Broadway. We found ourselves in the midst of another mighty throng of New Yorkers surging to and fro, this time between the lofty walls of the American Museum of Natural History.
It’s common for teeming thousands to escape the noisy, crowded streets of the city at this place that celebrates the beauty of the natural world. Twenty thousand visitors were expected at the museum the day we visited, and 19,000 of them must have been there when we were.
Our game plan for negotiating the throngs that swarmed the museum’s marble corridors resulted from last December’s pilgrimage to Theodore Roosevelt’s Sagamore Hill – a natural history museum in its own right.
The American Museum of Natural History traces its history to 1861, when the treasurer of Central Park recommended in his annual report to establish a natural history museum in the park’s vicinity. The Civil War prevented any fundraising to develop the idea, but by 1869, the time was right for a group of New York millionaires to fund the purchase of some European natural history collections that would form the core of a natural history museum for New York City. That year, J. Pierpont Morgan, Theodore Roosevelt, Sr. and 17 other men — many of them amateur naturalists who collected their own natural history artifacts — gathered at Roosevelt’s East 20th Street home to found and sign the charter for the American Natural History Museum. The museum’s first home was in the Arsenal Building in Central Park, and it opened to the public in April 1871.
It wasn’t long before the museum petitioned the New York State legislature for a new home. It received 16 acres of undeveloped land known as Manhattan Square, adjacent to Central Park on West 79th Street in an isolated area of run-down farms, rugged outcrops and stagnant pools. It tasked Calvert Vaux, the architect of Central Park and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, with designing a monumental building that would convey the importance of science. On June 2, 1874, President Ulysses S. Grant laid the cornerstone for the new building. It opened to the public on December 22, 1877, with President Rutherford Hayes presiding. Vaux’s design was so monumental that it is still only two-thirds complete today.
The museum’s remote location made it difficult for the public to visit, but its poor attendance had turned around by the early years of the 20th century. New collections poured in, including some of the finest examples of Northwest Coast Indian art and spectacular gems like the Star of India, a golfball-sized star sapphire that Morgan donated to the museum.
Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. was one of the museum’s earliest donors. In 1872, the young boy gifted the museum with the skull of a red squirrel, followed in 1876 by a Snowy owl from Oyster Bay and a trio of plovers the 14-year-old collected during a family vacation to Egypt, all of which he mounted himself. In the years that followed, our 26th president made many donations to the museum, including a now-extinct Passenger Pigeon and one of the eight African elephants at the center of the museum’s African Hall. He also gifted the museum with the skin and dung of a giant ground sloth, a bamboo flute and a palm nut bead necklace, all from his expedition to South America in 1913 and 1914, a trip so arduous that it almost killed him.
The museum’s self-guided “Theodore Roosevelt Tour” introduces visitors to the president’s keen observational skills as an amateur naturalist, his love of studying wildlife in their native surroundings, and his concern for their conservation.
On October 27, 1931, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, then governor of New York, laid the cornerstone of a two-story memorial to his famous cousin on the museum’s Central Park West facade. He told the crowd that when he was a boy, Theodore had told him, “Franklin, you can learn more about nature and life in the museum than in all the books and schools in the world.”
In the Roosevelt Family Hall, a sculpture depicts Theodore as he looked during a 1903 trip to Yosemite that he took with the famous naturalist John Muir.
Cultural artifacts like his cowboy jacket and archival photographs and film footage illustrate his lifelong interest in nature, from keeping a journal on insects when he was 11 and camping in the Adirondack Mountains to observing the birds on Oyster Bay and going on international safaris.
A corridor devoted to another famous naturalist, John Burroughs, includes a photo of Theodore and Edith Roosevelt on a July 1903 visit to Slabsides, Burroughs’ cabin in New York. Theodore used the Dutch term for uncle when he gave Burroughs the nickname of “Oom John.”
Inscriptions on the walls of the Theodore Roosevelt Rotunda convey Theodore’s thoughts on nature and other subjects important to him.
Three giant “Milestones in Public Life” murals in the rotunda depict his leadership in building the Panama Canal, his role in negotiating the 1905 Treaty of Portsmouth between Russia and Japan, for which he became the first American to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 1906; and his 1909-10 expedition to Africa.
The museum uses more than one exhibit to call attention to how concerned Roosevelt was about the plight of endangered birds. In 1903, he established the first Federal Bird Reserve, on Florida’s Pelican Island, showing his commitment to stopping the sale of endangered bird plumes to the millinery trade to use on their fashionable creations.
Looking at these display cases, I remembered what my friend Tutti told me a few days before my New York City adventure. “I’m not really a diorama kind of person, but the dioramas at the American Museum of Natural History are just exquisite,” she said. It wasn’t long before I figured out just what she meant.
The museum’s painstakingly created, lifelike habitat dioramas are superb depictions of an animal’s native habitat, complete with indigenous flora and wildlife. The featured habitats are real places, carefully selected and recorded with photographs and sketches made by museum artists during a visit the actual site. For those of us who can’t take an exotic expedition to encounter a creature in its habitat, seeing these dioramas is a transformational experience.
The museum’s habitat dioramas consist of three things: a life-sized sculpted form, on which is mounted the animal’s preserved skin; the foreground, a three-dimensional recreation of trees, shrubs, flowers and other vegetation indigenous to the particular habitat; and a curved background painting that provides the illusion of witnessing an actual scene from nature. All three are presented within a glass-fronted alcove case, like a window through which visitors see the recreation of a real place.
For example, the Alaska Moose diorama in the Hall of North American Mammals presents a typical scene during mating season in the forest: a pair of bull moose battling with each other, surrounded by aspen trees portrayed in fall color.
The nearby Grizzly Bear diorama is well-known not only for its artistic nature, but also for what happened during its creation. Raymond de Lucia was an artist at the museum who collected and assembled the habitat surroundings of the dioramas who also loved to prank his colleagues. While creating this diorama in 1941, de Lucia put on a torn-up shirt, splashed red paint on his chest, picked up a large bowie knife and climbed under the form of the female grizzly bear before a rotten log that she was supposed to be pawing was installed, so it looked like the bear was attacking him.
Visitors are also treated to immersive experiences at the museum. We soared over canyons, hurtled down steep mountain peaks, and climbed up columns of ice during a screening of National Parks Adventure, a film narrated by Robert Redford that celebrates the legendary features of America’s national parks in their 100th anniversary year. Click here to listen to Greg MacGillivray, the film’s director, talk about making the film on All Sides with Ann Fisher. The program originally aired February 8, 2016, but was rebroadcast the day before our New York City adventure.
After we parted company with the swarms that were still pouring into the museum, we embarked on four more stops on our Theodore Roosevelt-themed tour of New York City — the buildings that had once been Roosevelt family homes.
At 55 West 45th Street, in a narrow townhouse that’s now the home to a barber shop and a pizzeria, Theodore and his first wife, Alice, lived as newlyweds.
The Roosevelt home at 6 West 57th Street was where three Roosevelts died. First came the death of the future president’s father, Theodore Roosevelt, Sr., in 1878. While Theodore was away in Albany working as a New York State congressman, his pregnant wife, Alice, lived here with his mother, Martha. On February 14, 1884, Alice died less than two days after giving birth to their daughter, whom they also named Alice. Martha died later that same day.
After that fateful day, Theodore retreated to his North Dakota ranch, but maintained a residence at 422 Madison Avenue from 1884 to 1886. His sister Bamie lived here while taking care of baby Alice.
Theodore, his second wife, Edith, and their children lived at Bamie’s home at 689 Madison Avenue when he was New York City’s civil service and police commissioner.For more on the American Museum of Natural History, check out American Museum of Natural History: 125 Years of Expedition and Discovery, by Lyle Rexer and Rachel Klein; Dinosaurs in the Attic: An Excursion Into the American Museum of Natural History, by Douglas J. Preston; A Gathering of Wonders: Behind the Scenes at the American Museum of Natural History and The American Museum of Natural History’s Book of Dinosaurs and Other Ancient Creatures, both by Joseph E. Wallace; Gems & Crystals from the American Museum of Natural History, by Anna S. Sofianides; Next of Kin: Great Fossils at the American Museum of Natural History, by Lowell Dingus; From the Land of the Totem Poles: The Northwest Coast Indian Art Collection at the American Museum of Natural History, by Aldona Jonaitis; Natural Histories: Extraordinary Rare Book Selections From the American Museum of Natural History Library, edited by Tom Baione; and Windows on Nature: The Great Habitat Dioramas of the American Museum of Natural History, by Stephen Christopher Quinn. Watch Night at the Museum and its sequel, Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb, to see Ben Stiller play a night shift security guard at the American Museum of Natural History who finds out that the museum’s inhabitants come to life at night.