Linda and I invited her son Jason, his wife Marzela, and their children Izaak, Sofia and Marcelo to join us in Washington, D.C. following the October 2012 meeting of the Citizens’ Stamp Advisory Committee. After Friday lunch at the Willard, we walked past the Treasury, White House and the Executive Office buildings as we headed to the Washington Monument, still closed to the public because of earthquake damage. With time to visit only one museum that afternoon, we chose the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.
In 2010, as one of a group of seven professors, I visited the American Museum of Natural History in New York City with a Western Connecticut State University group of students enrolled in an honors course entitled “Wunderkammer of Knowledge: Exploring the hidden spirit behind science, art, creativity, and rational thought.” The objective was to have students locate objects that caused them to wonder, consider and contemplate the wonder involved, and report why the objects triggered the wonder and the results.
It was the first time I visited a natural history museum in decades. As I roamed through the museum’s bird, reptile and amphibian, fossil, human origins and cultural, and mammals halls, I felt I had seen all this before. While I am certain there were subtle and perhaps even major changes made to the permanent exhibits since I last visited in the 1970s, they were not readily apparent. There was plenty to cause wonder but nothing new.
This is the same impression I had about the Smithsonian Natural History Museum. Much of what I saw, I remembered from previous visits. Although more than 30 years had passed since I last toured the museum, everything was exactly where I remembered it was.
We entered the museum from the Mall entrance. The rotunda features an African elephant measuring 13 feet, 2 inches high at the shoulder, the largest mounted animal in the world. When first exhibited in 1959, it stood on an oval platform. In 1999, the base was renovated to place the elephant in a more naturalistic setting. Having seen the elephant several times in the 1960s, my memory was devoid of any knowledge of its base. I suspect Sofia and Marcelo’s memories will be similar. When you see the elephant, no one pays attention to the base.
Everyone was tired by the time we arrived at the Natural History Museum. Hence, we decided to limit our visit to a few select galleries. We spent the majority of our time in the galleries featuring fossils, dinosaurs and ice-age mammals. Marcelo was fascinated, as I knew he would be. Most young males experience a dinosaur and bone craze. Sofia’s interest delighted and surprised me.
I suggested the galleries because I wanted a closer look at their contents. The last decade has seen a major renewal of collecting interest in collecting natural history artifacts.
Author’s Aside #1: Those involved in collecting antiquing antiques and collectibles view their objects as the center of the collecting universe. Antiquities, coins, minerals and gemstones, natural history, pre-Columbian and stamps are a few major collecting categories that antiques and collectibles collectors see as peripheral. This Ptolemaic approach is misguided. The center of the universe is a concept, collecting, and not a specific group of objects. What one collects is not important. The fact that one collects makes the individual a part of the collecting community.
The natural history market is fascinating. First, it is an international market. Collectors are scattered across the globe with strong interest in Asia, especially China, Arabic countries, Saudi Arabia for example, and Europe. While American collectors are active in the market, they do not dominate it. Second, prices are increasing exponentially. The high end of the market begins in the middle tens of thousands of dollars. Third, many of these pieces are becoming investment-grade objects, following the trend seen in coins, stamps, and antiques and collectibles categories such as firearms.
I. M. Chait of Beverly Hills, Calif., was an early leader in introducing natural history objects into the American auction scene. Although heavily focused on fossils and minerals, its sales have included skulls and other dinosaur-related materials.
Chait’s success attracted the attention of Heritage Auctions, now the leading American auction house for natural history artifacts. In May 2012, Heritage sold a nearly complete tyrannosaur skeleton found in Mongolia for more than one million dollars. Its Natural History & Fine Minerals Signature Auction also included a dodo bird skeleton cast, an elephant bird egg, a giant saber-toothed tiger skull cast, a “duck billed” dinosaur skull and more.
Today’s market is global. Bonham’s English location conducts natural history auctions with categories including “mineral specimens; fossils, including dinosauria, petrified wood, amber and ammolite; unmounted faceted gemstones, including rare phenomenal gemstones; gold; meteorites; lapidary, archaeological stone artefacts (sic.), mounts and animal, plant, insect and shell specimens, pearls and coral, and natural history-related decor and curiosities.”
When we finished the ice age galleries of the Natural History Museum, Sofia and Marcelo were nearing exhaustion. Since we talked about the Hope Diamond on our way to the museum, I recommended we visit that gallery and head back to the hotel. Our trip to find an elevator (we were too tired to climb the staircases) took us through the African Voices and Ocean Hall.
Author’s Aside #2: I keep forgetting that the natural history discipline also includes early native cultures. The anthropologist who focuses on human origins and the sociologist who studies society are part of the natural history field. The American Museum of Natural History’s Human Origins galleries explore the evolution of human life and its Cultural Halls examine African, Asian, North and South American, and Pacific cultures. Unfortunately, I encountered the Margaret Mead Hall of Pacific Peoples with only a half hour left in my visit. I could have spent several hours exploring the wonders in this one section.
The Hope Diamond failed to impress Sofia, Marzela or Linda. I had forgotten it was a blue diamond, not that this should influence one’s impression. The issue was one of perspective. Given all the hype, it should have been bigger.
However, when Grandma and Sofia went into the gallery to the right which contained more than a dozen cases of exquisite jewelry featuring pieces such as Marie Louise’s diadem, Marie Antoinette’s diamond earrings, Napoleon’s diamond necklace (do not get the wrong idea; he did not wear it), and a Tiffany diamond and ruby bracelet, their eyes brightened. Sofia found several pieces with which she could wear and be content. Where Grandma favored the diamond pieces, Miss Sofia liked the glitter and sparkle of the colored stones.
While Grandma and Miss Sofia studied the gem cases in the succeeding galleries, I spent time with the mineral specimens, a collecting category whose siren song I have resisted in my adult collecting career. When asked about my early collecting, I always answer: “I cut my collecting teeth on the big three—coins, stamps and rocks.” I rediscovered my mineral collection while packing the material at The School. With a heavy heart, I put it on the disposal rather than the “move to Michigan” pile.
Desiring to exit the Natural History Museum on Constitution Avenue, we took the elevator down to the basement level. Our travels took us by case after case of mounted birds, a vivid reminder of natural history collecting trends of the late 19th and first half of the 20th centuries. They brought back memories of similar cases in the collection of the Historical Society of York County (Pa.), where I was executive director from late 1972 to early 1977 and a consulting assignment for the biology department at Muhlenberg College, which was faced with a “what to do with” decision involving several dozen cases of stuffed birds, eggs and skins when moving into a new science building. When Sofia or Marcelo appeared not to have any interest, I took the best course possible—totally ignored the displays.
I have crossed off the Museum of Natural History from my list of museums to visit while I am in Washington, D.C. Once the list is exhausted, I will go back. It deserves a closer look.
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