The American Museum of Natural History Is Much, Much More Than The ‘Dead Animal Zoo’*
Sex. Drugs. Sperm castles.
These are three things you wouldn’t expect to find at the stodgy-feeling American Museum of Natural History, right? But they’re there, if you know where to look.
Enter Museum Hack. The rebellious love child of team-building exercises and traditional docent-led jaunts gone delightfully awry, their “renegade tours” are the ideal antidote for jaded New Yorkers looking for a new perspective on one of our city’s premier educational institutions/essential tourist destinations/mandatory family fun outings.
And the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) is unique, of course, for its many collections of pristine taxidermy from all corners of the earth (and that giant blue whale, too). It’s been fictitiously represented in the “Night At The Museum” film franchise, in which Ben Stiller collected a paycheck, and Robin Williams (RIP, My Captain!) made for a refreshing, rambunctious President Theodore Roosevelt. It’s got quite the history already, and as a New Yorker verging on a decade of city living, I’ve got quite the history of visits to AMNH. I’ve seen it all, right?
To lay our scene, it’s Saturday. In July. In Manhattan. It’s so hot, being outside feels like punishment for something you did in another life. So basically, it’s one of the worst days to visit AMNH, because everyone with a brain is either a) out of town b) near a refreshing body of water or c) indoors, in spaces known for frigid air conditioning. Like the movies, or, you know, the museum.
I entered the museum through the main Central Park entrance, and you can tell by my snapshot that it was going to be a crowded, busy experience.
And that expectation did not disappoint as I entered the Theodore Roosevelt Rotunda, resplendent in natural light and the towering fossil of a barosaurus. Although being two stories tall, the actual square footage of floor space in the Rotunda felt nonexistent. Between the gigantic ticket line snaking around the south side, guests sitting on all available benches, and regular museum goers trying to flow from the Rose Center for Earth and Space through to Asian Mammals, it was the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of “crowded”. Or, to borrow an expression from my high school theater teacher, “excrement was hitting the oscillating rotators”.
The confirmation I received from Museum Hack instructed me to meet my tour guide by the tail end of said barosaurus. I swam through the sea of humanity, keeping my eyes peeled for someone who didn’t look like an exhausted and confused tourist.
Zak’s faux hawk caught my eye, which then traveled to the Museum Hack nametag pinned to his shirt pocket. Winner winner, chicken dinner! I made a beeline for him, stepping over and around a bank of strollers.
“Hi… I’m here for Museum Hack,” I said, feeling overwhelmed by the crowds swarming around us.
“Great! What’s your name?” Zak asked smiling, flipping open a pad of name tags.
“Lisette. L-I-S-E-T-T-E,” I answered, hoping Zak heard me. Misspellings of my name are a way of life, and I try really hard to avoid the mutual awkwardness of it in person.
Two seconds later, my properly-spelled name tag was handed over, and I stuck it to the front of my sundress. Zak repeated the process for the rest of our group as they arrived, treating everyone with the sunniest of dispositions.
My tour group was a lovely mix of couples, some of who had been on a Museum Hack tour in the past. Like myself, all were New Yorkers, as well as being multi-visit veterans of AMNH. We all looked a little shellshocked by the crowd situation, but Zak wasn’t having any of it.
“This isn’t your typical elbow patches experience. Museums are fucking awesome!” Zak tells us, getting our group pumped for a two hour romp through AMNH. “Now, what do you absolutely have to see, otherwise you’ll die if you don’t!?”
Most of us answer with the whale room, aka the Milstein Family Hall of Ocean Life, which is probably #basic, but Zak handled our #basicness with aplomb. “There’s an amazing story about that whale,” he promised.
Before diving into the wacky, hidden riches of AMNH, Zak kicked our tour off with a classic Museum Hack huddle.
“Put your hands in the middle. We’re going to go down on ‘MUUU’ and up on ‘SEUM’, got it? Volume of two, but with the most intensity you’ve ever felt in your entire life!”
We put our hands in the middle.
Boom, we were off.
The thing about Museum Hack tours? They’re incredibly fast-paced. I’m pretty sure we took the stairs at the back of the Rotunda, to land at our first stop in the Bernard Family Hall of North American Mammals. Zak regaled our group with stories about the quality of the taxidermy and porcupine sex, among other majestical facts about the animal kingdom, and better left to him to tell.
You remember at the beginning of this piece, when I said the AMNH is ‘stodgy-feeling’? There’s actually a really good explanation as to why. Before diving into the porcupine sex, Zak explained how AMNH is a “museum of museums”, meaning that its taxidermy, and cultural exhibitions, are a snapshot of how museums and science were viewed at certain parts of time in American history. In that moment, my perception of AMNH (and, okay, my judginess) began to shift into something new. Something like… renewed appreciation.
From North American Mammals, we sped off to the Northwest Coast Indians exhibit. It was there I learned two things:
- Northwest Coast Indians is in the original museum building from the 1880s, which is why it smells so old.
- It contains the most offensive item in the entire museum collection, but it’s not my job to tell you what it is, or why it’s so very, very off-color.
After that adorable history lesson, we ran off to the Arthur Ross Hall of Meteorites to get acquainted with Ahnighito, the 4.5 billion-year-old, 32 ton piece of iron that fell from space some 10,000 years ago. Zak clued us into Ahnighito’s true origin story at the museum. I’ll say this much: you really, really, seriously, not even joking, can’t make that explosive story up.
From there, we visited the people of Vera Cruz, got high af in the Amazon, found Teddy Roosevelt’s truly crappy donation to the museum, saw Peruvian erotic pottery (or “erottery”, according to Zak), learned about the greatest practical joke in the history of the whale room, and ended at the seminal crowd-pleaser, the Saurischian Dinosaur exhibit.
This was the audience participation portion of the tour. Zak photographed us looking terrified in front of the pterodactyls in flight painting, which turned into cute Polaroids for us to keep as mementos. However, we had one more quest to complete before receiving said Polaroids, which Zak referred to as “dino degrees.”
Out of Zak’s “Museums Are F — king Awesome” tote bag came tiny plastic dinosaurs. To receive our dino degree, we were required to locate the fossil that matched our new plastic friends, take a selfie with it, and report one new fact about it to the group. I’m happy to report everyone aced their quest, and we’re all in the possession of our dino degrees.
And then. The tour was over.
And I realized for the previous two hours, I hadn’t really noticed the extreme size of the crowds. That other museum-goers had faded into the background. That I was 100% absorbed in what Zak was saying, and that I was 200% geeking out on it. I once again became aware of the din of hundreds of people.
After making one final solo stop beneath the blue whale (#basic), I wandered back out into the sullen heat and humidity of the Upper West Side. Tired and simultaneously energized, all I wanted to do was to do it all over again.
And if you’re still wondering where those sperm castles came from? (No pun intended, I swear.)
I’ll let Zak tell you, when you go on your own Museum Hack tour.
* A friend coined this phrase. I love you and your zoo, AMNH!