Though we got a much later start than planned, yesterday afternoon Spooky and I made it back up to Boston, to Cambridge, where we met Sonya Taaffe (sovay) for my first look at Harvard's Museum of Comparative Zoology. Over the last twenty years or so, as a working paleontologist or a visitor, I've seen most of America's major natural history museum's (and many of the minor ones). But I'd never made it to the MCZ. What a marvelous place it is. It stands today as one of the world's last remaining Victorian natural history cabinets, more or less as it was arranged upon its founding in 1859. It's holdings are gigantic, including the collections of famed naturalist and MCZ founder Louis Agassiz, and what can be viewed on display is merely the tip of the iceberg.
We didn't reach Cambridge until almost three p.m., so we had only two hours to look at a museum that needs many days to do it justice. I took in as much as I could and saw many specimens I've known from photographs and written descriptions for much of my life, such as the enormous Australian pliosaur Kronosaurus, the generic holotype skull of Triceratops, the holotype of Pterodactylus "elegans", and the type specimen of the enormous extinct turtle Stupendemys. The vertebrate paleontology halls alone would have kept me occupied for at least a day, though the real centerpiece of the MCZ is its great gallery of recent mammals. Complete skeletons of several species of cetaceans hang from the ceilings — sperm whale, right whale, narwhal, pygmy sperm whale, etc. The gallery is a glorious maze of antique glass cabinets, occupied by hundreds of taxidermied specimens and skeletons — giraffe, okapi, monkeys, bats, rhinoceri, and on and on and on. There is a glorious clutter to this place, many of the zoological specimens placed in no particular or consistent order, whether taxonomic or geographic, and, for me, that clutter, complete with dust and trays of mothballs, reflects something genuine in the diversity of life on Earth.
Indeed, the MCZ is itself as much an artefact as the millions of specimens held in its collections, a chance to wander through a time capsule, a sort of museum that is fast vanishing from the world. So it saddens me to hear talk of updating the exhibits and the possibility that the displays may be moved from Agassiz's great and musty cabinet to a new campus across the Charles River. It will surely be the loss of a historical treasure, and I only hope that I have the chance for a much longer visit before any such renovations or relocations occur. In an age of garish "infotainment" and interactivity, when museums become ever more like theme parks and are increasingly dumbed down, the Museum of Comparative Zoology is a much-needed breath of stale air. It is a veritable cathedral of evolution, alive with all the romance and mystery that attracted me to science and my love of the natural world. If you can possibly visit it, I urge you to do so.
After the museum, Sonya led us to a very good sushi restaurant in Arlington, where we talked writing and books and many more things than I can now recall. I think I had the best cucumber/avocado roll I've ever yet tasted. Also, I should thank her for the drad little Japanese octopus bead and a copy of her poetry collection, Postcards from the Province of Hyphens, which I hope to begin reading this very evening. After dinner, we gave her a drive home, then headed back to Rhode Island. On I-95, Spooky spotted Perseid meteor #11. I think we got home right at ten p.m. A shame we didn't have more time in Boston. Cambridge was beautiful, from what I saw of it.
The 30th-anniversary edition of Spider Baby (1964) on DVD was waiting for us in the mailbox, courtesy Netflix, so we got a big goofy dose of cannibalism, arachnids, and a very young Sid Haig before bed. Which was, somehow, a perfect end to the day. More to come...
Ah, and there are (big) photos behind the cut:
Skull from the generic holotype of Triceratops!
An old familiar friend, the mosasaur Tylosaurus.
A preserved coelcanth.
The magnificant Kronosaurus (with me for scale).
Skull of the White Rhicoceros, amid the menagerie.
The author seated next to a cabinet of ornithological specimens.
The oft-pimped platypus!
Staring into the "face" of a Right Whale (from the upper level of the gallery).
Photos copyright © 2006 by Caitlín R. Kiernan and Kathryn A. Pollnac.
Ellapsed time: 12:42 p.m.—3:27 p.m.