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Love bade me welcome

Thirty years ago, a summer romance led Ann Patchett to the Harvard Museum of Natural History

ANN PATCHETT | May/June 2014

The people who run the Harvard Museum of Natural History astonished me by offering to open at 8am, so that the photographer and I might have the run of the place for a couple of hours before the doors officially open to all the schoolchildren in Massachusetts. In truth, I like the schoolchildren. I like the way they scream the first time they wheel around a corner and come eye to eye with the stuffed Bengal tiger; the way they then shout for a friend, who has fallen behind the pack, transfixed by the model of a goblin shark hanging from the ceiling, so that they can see the friend scream at the tiger also. The schoolchildren serve to remind us that what we’re seeing is thrilling—but still, they clog up the space in front of the giraffe.

The first time I saw that giraffe was in 1983 when he was looking a little threadbare and wearing a bandage on his neck. I was 19. I had come to Harvard summer school and fallen in love with a tall boy named Jack. Jack was interested in biology, I was interested in Jack, ergo I was interested in biology. I went to the Museum of Comparative Zoology, vaguely understanding that Jack did some sort of work down in the basement during the school year. The museum, which is five storeys of dark red brick and Victorian sensibility, seemed to exist in marvellous disarray. I scarcely remember what I saw in 1983 because I was wondering where Jack studied and where he ate his sandwiches. I was hoping he might see me there and be impressed by my interest in the Blaschkas’ glass flowers. Not even a love-struck 19-year-old could fail to register them.

By the fall Jack and I had broken up, but a few years later our paths crossed again and we picked up a friendship that has lasted 30 years. I’m guessing it has outrun all the romances from summer school that year. What he had been working on down in the basement of the MCZ was ichthyology, the study of fishes. Later he went on to get his doctorate in evolutionary biology at Stanford, concentrating on lepidoptera, the study of butterflies. I became a novelist, and went back to Harvard when I was 30 to spend a year at the Bunting Institute at Radcliffe College. Even without love to compel me towards science, I found myself going back to the MCZ again and again.

The Harvard Museum of Natural History, which is a relatively new name, and the Museum of Comparative Zoology, founded in 1859, inhabit the same building but are not the same thing. The Museum of Natural History is the place you buy a ticket for, the place with the schoolchildren. It’s the public face of the 12 departments of the MCZ (ornithology, entomology, herpetology, malacology among them); the Harvard University Herbaria, once delightfully known as the Museum of Vegetable Products; and the Mineralogical and Geological Museums. Think of the Harvard Museum of Natural History as the station, while the three other museums, functioning as working research centres, represent the track and trains stretching out across the world. This is why the Harvard Museum of Natural History is my favourite museum—perhaps my favourite place, period. You can feel the science pressing in from every direction. If you see a display of 100 birds, you can be certain they were chosen from nearly 400,000 birds in the collections, and that next time you come, many of those birds will have been rotated in order to make an entirely new exhibition. There are, all told, somewhere in the neighbourhood of 21m specimens in Harvard’s collections. What you are witnessing in this public place is the tip of the biological iceberg.

But the science is not the only thing to love. There’s also the fact that the museum, despite all its updates and fresh exhibits, still maintains the feel of a place that opened its doors in 1874. “It’s a museum of museums,” Jack said to me once, and he was exactly right. This is what museums used to be like. It isn’t just that it houses the world’s only mounted Kronosaurus, or that it has one of the three greatest rubellite specimens, it’s that somehow generations of curators have managed to make the place feel as if it has been left alone. Once inside, it’s easy to imagine how it must have been to come to this place in 1874 and see a yak for the first time, or a perfectly rendered model of a flowering cactus. In this age of 24-hour programming on the National Geographic channel, it’s easy to forget that the role of such a museum was originally to show its patrons the wonders of the world. Walking through the Great Mammal Hall, I am once again struck by the tiny legs of the lesser mouse deer, the deep, furry coat of the American bison.

“The name refers to the Great Mammals,” Blue Magruder tells me, “not the Great Hall.” Blue, the museum’s director of marketing and communications, is taking me on a tour of the place I thought I already knew. She is so perfectly suited to her job, to the museum, it’s difficult to imagine her anywhere else. She’s a graduate of Radcliffe College, but her relationship to the museum goes back much further than that. Her grandmother used to take her mother there as a small child. Blue took her own son. She shows me around the fish and flowers the way another person might show me through the house she’d grown up in. There’s nothing about this place she doesn’t know. “When they had to replace some planks in the floor, the wood that had originally been used was too rare. It can’t be harvested now. But there’s a company that drags the Mississippi river and finds the logs that rolled off the barges in the 1800s.” She says this as if the bottom of the Mississippi were the logical place for anyone to look for replacement flooring, and sure enough, they dragged up those logs, planed them into boards, and repaired the floors. There have been many repairs over the years, most of them made with an eye to aligning the present with the past. “They got rid of the hot lights—they cracked the animals,” Blue says. “People would come in and say, ‘It’s disgraceful. Harvard needs to get a new rhinoceros!’ But they don’t understand, you can’t just get a new rhinoceros. You have to fix the one you have.” Eventually the giraffe shed his bandage. Animals were put behind glass to discourage the wear and tear of petting. Still, there is an appropriate degree of shabbiness. The West Indian monk seal looks like your great aunt’s coat dragged down from the attic. As he should. These creatures were not born yesterday.

Everything we zip past comes with a story that makes me want to stop for the rest of the day. Up on the ceiling hang the bones of Steller’s sea cow, extinct since the 1770s, extinct just 30 years after the species was discovered. Looking up, Blue shakes her head. “Tasted like steak, apparently.” The sailors on Bering Island off the coast of Alaska wiped them out. Extinction looms at every turn in this place—the dodo, the auk, passenger pigeons and Carolina parakeets, the sweet-faced Tasmanian tiger. Half of the animals whose placards I read are never coming back.

When I admire the pink fairy armadillo, Blue says there’s a better one up ahead. Sure enough, the next one’s gorgeous: a giant armadillo, the size of a full-grown pig. “Don’t quote me on this,” she says, “but I’m pretty sure that the armadillo is the only animal to consistently give birth to bio-identical quadruplets.” 

“I’m not allowed to quote you on bio-identical quadruplet armadillos?”

“That should come from a scientist,” she says. “Not allowed from me.”

For the record, I confirmed this quote concerning armadillo reproduction in a book about the museum, and include it as my best example of how seriously they take their facts at Harvard.

Of all the wonders in the museum, nothing really matches the collection of glass flowers. Set off in a room by themselves, the flowers are housed in old-fashioned glass display cases with wooden trim. There are many discreet signs saying that the cases should not be touched or leaned on, but no guards are present to enforce the policy. Truly, the glass flowers don’t make sense at first. It’s only a room full of plants in glass cases, many of them flowering, many just pulled from the ground, clumps of dirt still clinging to their roots. But what appears at first to be the perfection of nature is in fact the perfection of art, the life’s work of a father and son, Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka, who lived outside Dresden.

From 1887 to 1936, first Leopold, then Leopold and Rudolf, then Rudolf alone, devoted their lives to creating over 4,000 models for Harvard, all made from glass. Like everything else in the museum, this enormous collection is rotated. “Where are the rotten apples?” a woman asks frantically. It is explained to her that the apples are no longer on display, but will return soon. Personally, I want to see the small bouquet of flowers that were a gift to Elizabeth C. Ware and her daughter, Mary Lee Ware, from Leopold Blaschka, in 1889: his thanks to the women for underwriting what would become the Ware Collection of Glass Models and Plants. The bouquet too is not currently on display. I feel a certain kinship with this woman who wants to see her apples.

Twenty years after I met Jack, I had the idea of writing a novel about a Harvard student studying ichthyology in the basement of the MCZ. What if a brilliant and privileged young man was driven to study fishes? What if his father, a politician, found this completely unacceptable? The story was not Jack’s story, but he was certainly my starting point. I called him up. Did he still know anyone over at the MCZ? He put me in touch with Karsten Hartel, the collections manager of ichthyology, who invited me over.

This is where the division between the Harvard Museum of Natural History and the Museum of Comparative Zoology becomes clear, because while there is a dazzling display of dozens of fishes upstairs, downstairs there are close to a million and a half fishes in jars, in coolers, dried and stacked into drawers, stuffed, mounted, and sitting on top of cabinets. This is the part of the museum open to students and scientists but not the general public. Because I also considered making my character an ornithologist, I made the rounds of that department as well, looking at nests and eggs and flat-file drawers full of countless thousands of perfectly preserved birds. I fell in love with the birds, especially the hummingbirds rolling around in boxes like loose gems, but in the end I went with the fishes in honour of my old friend. That was the start of the novel I eventually wrote called “Run”.

A few days after going back to Harvard to research this piece, I was in New York. The Frick Collection had offered to open at 8am so that a friend of mine could come in and see an exhibition—“Vermeer, Rembrandt, and Hals: Masterpieces of Dutch Painting from the Mauritshuis”. She invited me along. I stood in a room that contained a single painting, Vermeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring”, with no one there but my friend and a security guard. I couldn’t help but think of the museum that had so recently opened early for me, of the delicate branch of apple blossoms the Blaschkas had made out of glass, and the gorgeous neck of the towering giraffe. It shocked me to realise that I loved the flowers and the animals more than I loved one of the most famous paintings in the world; that I loved the planked floors and glass cases more than the most spectacular house in New York city.

All I can say is that the heart wants what it wants, and for me science has become the most spectacular art. There is no arguing with Dutch painting. The light on the cheek of that girl is transcendent. I would wish for every reader the time to go to as many museums as possible. But, if there is time for only one, I would recommend the Harvard Museum of Natural History.

Harvard Museum of Natural History open daily 9am-5pm; hmnh.harvard.edu

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