There’s a particular passage in J.D. Salinger’s signature work, “The Catcher in the Rye,” that has always really spoken to me. After a litany of indignities, gaffes and humiliating tribulations, protagonist Holden Caulfield repairs to the sprawling, tranquil galleries of the American Museum of Natural History on the Upper West Side, finding solace in a particular diorama that depicts an Eskimo having just caught two fish out of a hole in the ice. While Holden’s life spirals around him in a strange, uncertain trajectory, he assigns these immediate surroundings a very personal significance.
The best thing, though, in that museum was that everything stayed right where it was. Nobody’d move. You could go there a hundred thousand times, and that Eskimo would still be just finished catching those two fish, the birds would still be on their way south, the deers would still be drinking out of that water hole … Nobody’d be different. The only thing that would be different would be you.
Obviously, Salinger’s richly nuanced text is open to myriad interpretations, but I’ve always read into this specific episode as a reflection of Holden’s inability to come to terms with the ramifications of his own developing adulthood and the accompanying life changes. The seeming permanence and comfortable familiarity of those elements of the museum represent the cherished-if-fleeting stability and equally vanishing innocence of his childhood. As such, he pines for them.
I relate to this on two levels. For a start, one might be able to draw a parallel between myself and Holden (a nervous proposition, given Holden Caulfield’s longstanding status as an inspiration to certain murderers and attempted murderers), given my continued pining for and lament over the loss of very specific elements of my native New York City that I may have naively expected to never go away. Yes, I may indeed genuinely miss specific aspects of some long-lost record store, but I also miss and lament what that record store might arguably represent to my mind -– i.e. my youth. It’s hardly a leap.
Psychobabble aside, however, I also respond to Holden’s observations about the Museum of Natural History on a purely surface level. Even decades before I was the sniveling midlife-crisis-sufferer I am today, I appreciated the apparently constant nature of the museum’s exhibits. Holden’s assertion that they never changed isn’t quite true, of course, but rather a rose-tinted projection. Most of the main, iconic pieces remain right where you left them, but there are subtle (and not so subtle) changes happening all the time there (like, say, the replacement of the Hayden Planetarium with the Rose Center for Earth & Space).
The weird thing about that, of course, is that I doubt the museum’s planners had those associations in mind when they installed the exhibits in question. For example, upon carefully erecting those towering fossil replications of dinosaurs with talons out and jaws agape, I doubt any of those curators suspected people would latch onto those terrifying beasties beyond their significance as artifacts of our planet’s complex history and grow emotionally attached to them.
To that end, when I bring my children there these days, I’m frequently heard to point things out like “when I was taken here at your age, that guy dressed up like a witch-doctor in the African peoples wing used to scare the Hell out of me.” Part of the experience has become less about the literal historical relevance of the artifacts on display, and more about their placement in the context of the museum. The witch-doctor guy may not scare me anymore, but I love that he’s still there.
So, once again, why am I talking about all this? Well, it’s another instance of spotting a picture on the Old New York Tumblr that really struck a note -– an image that speaks quite strikingly to the very essence of permanence and familiarity that both Holden and I find solace in.
Depending on how you enter the museum, a major focal point upon reaching its main floor has always been the Hall of African Mammals (or Akeley Hall of African Mammals, if I’m being precise, thus named after explorer Carl Akeley). If you’re not entirely familiar with the place, it’s basically that dark, cavernous room featuring a taxidermized herd of African elephants in the center, surrounded on two levels by lushly detailed dioramas. Right as you walk into that big chamber, the glassed-in display on your immediate left is one featuring what looks like a family of gorillas holding court in a deep, primeval forest. Here it is now…
It’s an image as immediately entwined with the museum as, say, the Temple of Dendur is with the Metropolitan Museum on the other side of Central Park. As a tiny child weaned on “King Kong” and “Planet of the Apes,” I remember being literally awestruck by the sight of that big, primate patriarch in the back, standing upright with hairy elbows akimbo. I suppose they were trying to imply that he was in the process of beating his chest, but he always looked to me like he was about to fling his arms out and break into song. That very same big fella was referenced on a postcard campaign around the same era, aping (sorry) Dino De Laurentiis’ 1976 take on “King Kong.”
Anyway, the point I’m trying to get at is that for as long as I’ve been going to that museum -– which is, essentially, more or less my entire life (I don’t remember how old I might have been when my mother first brought my sister and I there, but we were invariably pretty damn young)-- this diorama has been there. At this point, I should point out that I’m perilously close to the age of 49.
Over on Old New York, meanwhile, I stumbled upon this photo, snapped in 1936.
Here’s that photo’s caption…
Finishing touches were applied to a diorama in the Akeley Hall of African Mammals at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Named for Carl Akeley, the explorer who conceived and designed all the displays and died on Mount Mikeno in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1926, the hall presents several animals that Mr. Akeley had killed himself, The New York Times reported on May 17, 1936. “He will probably be set down as one of the most famous lovers of all natural things,” Russell Owen wrote. Photo: The New York Times
Now, I don’t know why I should find this so shocking, but evidently that same, big, fuckoff gorilla has been standing there in that same spot, about to bust into song .. for literally 80 YEARS!
That just kinda blows my mind.
Addendum: Here's a shot of my little monkeys admiring the big fella back from 2012.