• picture
  • picture
  • picture
  • picture
Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Biodiversity in the Big Apple

Air Date: Week of

In this reporter’s notebook, Richard Schiffman considers the evolving role of museums and his own attachment to them.


CURWOOD: You don't have to travel to the bottom of the ocean to experience life's extremes. In the heart of New York City, you'll find a unique shrine to the natural world. Richard Schiffman takes us there in this reporter's notebook.

(A horn honks; ambient people and traffic sounds)

SCHIFFMAN: In the self-important bustle of the Big Apple, all else fades to the periphery including the natural world.

(Hip hop music plays)

SCHIFFMAN: From this vantage point at the center of Times Square, I can see nothing that the hands of human beings have not made. But when I grow weary of glass and steel and neon, there's a whole other world available for the price of a subway token.

(Sounds of the NYC subway; fade to museum echoes)

SCHIFFMAN: I've been coming here for as long as I can remember, under the vast bony arch of the Tyrannosaurus Rex and into the cavernous hall of African mammals, the heart of the American Museum of Natural History. It's like entering a shrine, a solemn cathedral of the natural world. And I, a pilgrim, gazing in wonder. Lions crouching against a painted savannah. Crocodiles basking on the shores of the Upper Nile. Baby zebras huddled under the watchful gaze of an eternally doting mother.

CHILD: It looked like -- the faces look like cows.

SCHIFFMAN: A flock of young schoolgirls passes through the hall as lightly as butterflies.

GIRL: Oh, look at that little -- zebras!

GIRL 2: Oh, I love zebras!

GIRL 3: Oh, they're so cute!

GIRL 4: Oh, look at the babies.

GIRL 5: Oh cute...

GIRL 6: Oh wow.

GIRL 7: Don't fall in...

SCHIFFMAN: I'm struck by what one of the girls just said: Don't fall in. These dioramas are so realistic, standing in front of them we feel vertigo as if we're about to fall. And not just into the frozen tableau before us, but into the whole untamed world of nature. But of course we never do fall in. We stand outside the glass, as modern humans have always stood outside and gazed wistfully in at the natural world.

QUINN: Even today, in this age of multi-media extravaganzas, these dioramas, these exhibits engage and affect people in ways that our other exhibits don't.

SCHIFFMAN: My guide is Steve Quinn. He supervises the construction of dioramas like these. Steve first entered this hall at the age of 4, and was wonder-struck by the towering herd of elephants at the center.

(Voices and echoes in the background)

QUINN: I can remember that experience like it was yesterday. It was during that visit that my parents said that I turned and I said, "Some day I want to work here."

SCHIFFMAN: Like Steve Quinn, I can also remember standing rapt in front of these very display cases as a child, each one a vision of Eden, a pure and untouched world. I've returned to these scenes in every year of my life.

(Grunting sounds. A woman's voice-over: "Ears forward, noses straining for the scent, a pack of African wild dogs peers across the Serengeti Plain...")

SCHIFFMAN: Today I wonder what it is that draws me to these slightly menacing scenes of wild power and heartbreaking beauty that both fascinates and repels. The glass of the display case is both a window and a wall of protection. And unlike the world of the streets, this is a realm where nothing ever changes. The lioness leaps upon the springbok eternally, or so it seems.

(Snorts and pounding sounds amidst bird calls. A woman's voice-over: "This is one of the most famous dioramas in the American Museum. Just to the right of center, a large male pounds his chest...")

SCHIFFMAN: We're looking at a family of gorillas foraging in a mountain clearing. Steve Quinn tells me that if we return to the spot in central Africa that the display is based on, it would appear very different today. Instead of trackless jungle and smoking volcanos, we would see a patchwork of terraced farm land climbing ever higher up the flanks of the Burunga Mountains.

(Woman's voice-over: "In countries where viable gorilla habitat remains, local governments are making efforts to protect the species. But in many cases, gorilla survival often takes a back seat to more pressing human concerns.")

SCHIFFMAN: The world changes, but some things never seem to change. A museum display case. A photographic image. A memory of childhood. Anthropologists like to speculate about what it is that sets human beings apart from other creatures. Is it our ability to make and use tools? Our capacity for abstract thought, for love and caring? I doubt that any of these are uniquely human. Perhaps what truly sets us apart is that we alone make museums. We alone create repositories for memory: museums, graveyards, libraries. Only humans can gaze back in imagination at a world that has vanished, as a museum-goer peers into a diorama. And only we can reflect on all we've lost.

GIRL: We are in the midst of the sixth extinction. Read this! Right now, we are in the mist --

GIRL 2: (Reading) Right now we are in the midst of the sixth extinction. This time crawls slowly by...

SCHIFFMAN: Nowhere is the poignancy and the fragility of life more apparent than in the Museum of Natural History's new Hall of Biodiversity.

(Many children speaking and yelling in the background)

BOY: Look at that! Asiatic striped palm squirrel. Fur seal. Howler monkey.

BOYS 1 and 2 TOGETHER: Expended [word?] and gray kangaroo.

BOY 1: Expanded armadillo, duck-billed platypus, ocelot

BOY 2: Go back to duck-billed platypus.

BOY 1: A (laughs) North African striped weasel. Those things are so neat.

(Animal call in background)

SCHIFFMAN: Being here is like stumbling upon some latter-day Noah's Ark. Overhead a giant squid, a 20-foot-long jellyfish, spoonbills in flight, a hammerhead shark. The walls are festooned with sprays of exotic insects, birds, and snakes. And in the center, a scale model of an African rainforest.

GRIFFO: We wanted people to come into this hall and say, "Whoa, this is biodiversity." Look at it all, look at the wonder of it, look at the beauty of it.

SCHIFFMAN: Francesca Griffo is the director of the museum's Center for Biodiversity.

GRIFFO: Most of us now today and into the future as we know will be living in increasingly urban environments. And so we don't get to see this stuff. And we really can't expect people to make an emotional connection or even an intellectual connection to something that they've never seen, never understood how dramatically beautiful they are.

SCHIFFMAN: In the old museum there was nothing that you can touch, but in the new exhibits there are a lot of things you can touch. There's less glass between you and the exhibit. It's a whole different style, isn't it?

GRIFFO: It really is. I mean, what we want is for the individuals to be able to be closer to nature. To really relate to it, not as something that is this bizarre example tucked away in a dusty museum. The large natural history museums evolved in basically Victorian times where people came to look at oddities and curiosities and things that were very distant from their lives. And of course our philosophy now is quite different.

SCHIFFMAN: For the new breed of curator, like Francesca Griffo, the museum is not just a mausoleum of the past. And it's no longer a place where we gaze in on the world of nature from the outside, like tourists in a foreign land. From computer terminals here, you can learn more about the incredible diversity of life, and e-mail the information back to your home computer. Displays on environmental legislation show you how to contact lawmakers. The new museum is a place to make connections to the natural world, to life, and to the future.

CHILD: Come here! Come here! See something!

WOMAN: You found this! The millipede and the assassin bugs!

(A siren sounds)

CHILD: Yeah!

SCHIFFMAN: Museums change, and so, alas, have I. But I still come here to dream about the world of nature, and now to reflect on how to safe it as well. As you exit the Biodiversity Hall, a sign reads, "Treat the world well. It was not given to you by your parents. It was loaned to you by your children."

WOMAN (calling): Alison Eff, Lauren, Tim. Where's Tim? Okay, you are finding out what biodiversity is. Who can tell me what it is?

CHILD: Ooh, I know.

WOMAN: What is it?

CHILD: It is the sum of all species living on earth.

WOMAN: Okay. What's the next question that we have to figure out?

SCHIFFMAN: For Living on Earth, I'm Richard Schiffman.

WOMAN: Okay, well let's go to the video screens and see. Are these ecosystems?

CHILD: Yeah.

WOMAN: Are they? Well, what's an ecosystem? Let's see if we can find that out.



Living on Earth wants to hear from you!

Living on Earth
62 Calef Highway, Suite 212
Lee, NH 03861
Telephone: 617-287-4121
E-mail: comments@loe.org

Newsletter [Click here]

Donate to Living on Earth!
Living on Earth is an independent media program and relies entirely on contributions from listeners and institutions supporting public service. Please donate now to preserve an independent environmental voice.

Living on Earth offers a weekly delivery of the show's rundown to your mailbox. Sign up for our newsletter today!

Sailors For The Sea: Be the change you want to sea.

Creating positive outcomes for future generations.

Innovating to make the world a better, more sustainable place to live. Listen to the race to 9 billion

The Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment: Committed to protecting and improving the health of the global environment.

Contribute to Living on Earth and receive, as our gift to you, an archival print of one of Mark Seth Lender's extraordinary wildlife photographs. Follow the link to see Mark's current collection of photographs.

Buy a signed copy of Mark Seth Lender's book Smeagull the Seagull & support Living on Earth