The long lines of people surrounding the dramatic yet frozen statue which captures the precise moment in which a skeleton of a female herbivorous dinosaur is protecting her skeletal offspring from the creeping skeleton of a predator, are dissolving and filling the huge marble hall with chatter and camera clicks. The museum of Natural History, located right next to Central Park in Manhattan, serves as a very busy entertainment attraction, but can also teach us about the way we perceive and consume nature. Around us, inside this great entrance hall, are four huge stone slabs, and on each is engraved a quote by President Theodore Roosevelt, quotes about the state, nature, manhood and youth. Each quote creates an unsettling connection between the state, its men and nature. And although this nostalgic (and infamous?) connection between man, the state and nature may sound noble or romantic, it is not only superficial, but also completely artificial. Man created the state, which stands against nature, and nature is destroyed by mankind and by its urbanization and industrialization. This sharp contrast is painful to ponder on, and it is seems to be completely ignored within these halls of marble, where people come to see what we so wrongfully label ‘nature’.
An article from The Guardian tells us of musician and naturalist Bernie Kraus, who has spent 40 years recording the numerous and diverse sounds of nature on different locations. From his line of work, Kraus tells, we can learn about the recent sharp decline of sounds, a clear indication that nature is dying. “A great silence is spreading over the natural world even as the sound of man is becoming deafening,” he writes in his new book, The Great Animal Orchestra. We humans, members of the great humanistic cult, have enlightened the world with our murderous, unbearable light. Now, it seems, the world surrenders. Losing this round to us.
A natural history museum does not exhibit nature. It can’t. We get our tickets and pass through the cold halls that remind me of the empty justice hall I have been wandering through just two weeks ago in Washington DC. The cold and empty simulation of majesty is threatening visitors and exhibits alike with the brutal detachment from anything remotely related to life. Yet we move on inside, preparing ourselves to see Nature.
Nature is not there, though. The animals exhibited inside this museum are dead, dragged from nature into the heart of culture. I am walking past wild scenarios of great apes in the wild green, of huge rhinos and fearful tigers, all dead, welded into vivid scenarios and mock dioramas, behind glass walls. The sterile “perfect moment” presented, devoid of the dirty imperfections of nature, converts what was nature into a show. Nature might not have an inherent ‘Ruin Value’ (the idea of German architect Albert Speer, designing structures in a way that, upon their eventual collapse, will serve as aesthetically pleasing sights), but this value of aesthetic pleasure upon demise is assigned to it by the museum.
We walk past two young girls, taking pictures of themselves next to the cadavers of elephants who are stuck forever in a running position. On the next floor I see a mother leaving her baby in its carriage while she bends over and takes a photograph of a huge crocodile with his jaws wide open. I walk in this mausoleum and only notice it is indeed a mausoleum when I realize how silent it is. Well, actually this mausoleum of a museum is not silent but devoid of the sounds of nature. It is full of the sounds of humans and culture.
We go past what would have been a fur-garments selection, had it been presented in a store instead a museum, and next to the not-so-menacing crocodile awaits a remarkable demonstration of the distance we put between humans and non-humans. Inside yet another giant glass coffin are several snakes and salamanders on what looks like a rocky desert. Next to them, enjoying the artificial and silent wilderness, is a child dummy. In this almost-poetic, discomforting scene, there can never be a dead, stuffed real child, accompanying his fellow dead serpents, only substitute.
In another room there is a surprise, announced by a festive sign: The museum has acquired and imprisoned in a small aquarium several Axolotls (Ambystoma mexicanum). The sign above this aquarium declares: “LIVE AXOLOTL!” thus not only demonstrating the institute’s disrespect for living beings, who are locked in tiny chambers in order to become artifacts, but also the inability to truly understand what Nature is. Behold man, too fragile and reliant to be able to witness Nature, unless this nature is either dead or locked within the marble boundaries of the humanistic society. The only way we can truly admire the enigmatic Axolotls is by imprisoning them for our entertainment.
Our last in the museum was next to an interactive game, screened on the wall not far from those poor Axolotls. The rules of the game are simple: you stand in front of a camera and your image is projected onto a two dimensional world of animated outlands. When you see the animation of a skunk, you have to pet it. When you see the animation of a bug, you have to stomp it. As the physical cadavers of animals are transferred into the virtual, you can witness the legacy of the Nature Museum unveiling. Nature either entertains the humanistic society, or it is being stomped to death.
Meanwhile, in what seems almost like another world, a new artificially intelligent robot was built in order to entertain us in a different way- by mimicking a human being. This robot, looking completely human apart from a hole in the back of its head, talks to an interviewer and all the while it learns more words and subjects from the internet, while constantly analyzing the positions and facial expressions of the interviewer. The robot is required to come up with new conclusions and answers to unknown questions, and when asked ” Do you believe robots will take over the world?”, it answers:
” Jeez, dude. You all have the big questions cooking today. But you’re my friend, and I’ll remember my friends, and I’ll be good to you. So don’t worry, even if I evolve into Terminator, I’ll still be nice to you. I’ll keep you warm and safe in my people zoo, where I can watch you for ol’ times sake.”
In the ol’ times, mankind was molded by Nature and was living life among other species. While pondering our own future as museum props seems far too banal after reading about the soon-to-be terminator, we do need to think about this not from the humanistic perspective and narrative, but we need to consider how the dominant component in our legacy, our progress and our future, is, and can be, death to all.