I have never lived in New York City. I lived in New York state about 45 minutes outside of NYC and would often take day trips there; essentially making me a tourist, albeit a well informed one. I knew the cultural ‘dos and donts’ and was never guilty of committing the one sin that immediately identifies you as tourist in NYC: looking up. Looking up at the skyscrapers not only makes it possible for throngs of people to knock into you (you really need to watch where you’re going,and where everyone else is going for that matter on crowded sidewalks), but it really hurts your neck and makes you dizzy. I don’t recommend doing it, even if you are a tourist. However, my proximity to and familiarity with the City also put me at a disadvantage in my youth. I took it completely for granted. Let me explain.
I grew up in the ‘burbs in Spring Valley, New York. My house located just about equidistant from two major tourist attractions: The American Museum of Natural History in the City and West Point Military Academy in the ‘country.’ This meant countless field trips to both places, which inevitably bored my elementary school self. For the sake of time, this blog will focus on The AMNH, but I will post my experience with West Point in the near future and it will be riveting.
I honestly cannot remember the first time I took a field trip to the Museum, but it certainly seemed like it was an annual occurrence up through sixth grade. Sixth grade is a part of elementary school where I grew up, so field trips continued until I was about 12. As I am sure you can imagine, a bunch of pubescent kids had no interest in dioramas of Neanderthals, or exhibits on geologic formation processes. But we all stood in awe of the LIFE-SIZE replica of the blue whale.
This thing was GINORMOUS and it was suspended from the ceiling! I would never have sat under it like the individuals in the above picture, convinced that the cables would snap, resulting in my imminent death. I did not want my surviving family members to have to explain how I was killed by a whale on dry land, but I was enthralled by it nonetheless. It blew my mind that creatures this massive exist and I would never have been able to witness it this close up and in (relative) safety if not for the Museum.The whale was everyone’s favorite exhibit. We always stared at it in slack-jawed wonder no matter how many times we were ‘forced’ to go to the museum.
Looking back, I understand why I thought the whale was the coolest part of Museum. It was life size, and based on a real animal that was still alive; in other words, it felt authentic. The other animals in the displays were also life size, some even taxidermied, but they were either too common to instil awe or long extinct, devoid of any real world connections as far as I was concerned. I realize now how incredibly small minded I was, but cut me some slack,my love of archaeology had not yet formed.
As a kid, the trips to AMNH were always more about the excitement of being in the City than being at the museum itself. The Museum is located right across the street from Central Park and sometimes we would be allowed to eat our lunch in the park; my girlfriends and I opting to dine atop the large rock formations. Ironically, there was information regarding their formation in the museum but we didn’t care about that. We were in New York City and that was all that mattered. The countless trips over the years made us very familiar with this particular area of the City and we didn’t feel like tourists. We knew the layout of the museum by heart and even knew how far 20 bucks would go in the gift shop. We felt like we belonged here.This was ‘our’ museum. And I didn’t appreciate it.
Now that I have grown up (and consequently live 700 miles away), I wish I could talk to my 12 year old self and let her know how much she is taking for granted. I would tell her that this is a wealth of anthropological information that she will one day find fascinating and she won’t always be only 45 minutes away from it. I am sure my 12 year old self still wouldn’t care, but my adult self definitely does. The American Museum of Natural History is one place in NYC where we are all tourists and it is entirely okay to look up; in fact I encourage it, just maybe not while standing under the whale.