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The Fullness of a Moment

Jaime Green | Longreads | January 14, 2016 | 6,058 words

Half a century ago, the Hall of New York State Environment in the American Museum of Natural History was not only the future of museum design, but also, one man hoped, the future of democracy itself.

Posted inFeatured, Nonfiction, Story

The Fullness of a Moment

Half a century ago, the Hall of New York State Environment in the American Museum of Natural History was not only the future of museum design, but also, one man hoped, the future of democracy itself.
Photo Courtesy: American Museum of Natural History

Jaime Green | Longreads | January 2016 | 24 minutes (6,058 words)

here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life;which grows
higher than soul can hope or mind can hide

— E. E. Cummings, “[i carry your heart with me(i carry it in]

The study of natural history is, literally, the study of life –
life as it was, as it is, and as it will be.

— F. Trubee Davison, “American Museum of Natural History 1949 Annual Report

* * *

Most everything in the American Museum of Natural History is from another place or time: fossils from extinct creatures, rocks from space or deep within the earth, the yearly hot-house of butterflies sipping nectar and dodging toddlers in the midst of wintry New York. This seems to be what the museum is for. But in one hall of the museum, the artifact from the past is a bit of the museum itself: Like a time capsule of sorts, though it almost seems like they’ve forgotten that it’s there.

In this hall, everything is contained neatly in its frame. Little boxed windows, little farm scenes, pages from a cozy picture book. The wood paneling on the wall is like your grandparents’ basement. It speaks of rec rooms, warm pile carpets, lying on your stomach playing with an old GI Joe. Someone found it for you, no one really knows where it came from, but you’ll play with it for hours while the grownups are upstairs. This hall has no rec room carpet, just speckly brown tiles on the floor. And the dark wood-grain paneling on the walls is smooth and clean. This is a place for lingering; the ambient volume drops. In the busy modern museum in the busy modern city, this is a space that is quiet and and still, held in motion and time.

This is one of the very oldest bits of the museum. It hasn’t been touched in 64 years. If it were a person it would be almost old enough to retire.

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