Posts Tagged With: american museum of natural history

Drugs & ghosts: eclectic history in the French Quarter

The inside of the Pharmacy Museum offers a myriad of canned cures.

Though the buildings in New Orleans’ French Quarter retain the look of their historic times, they have been put to new uses as bars, restaurants, stores, and homes. At 514 Chartres Street, however, one façade retains an interior much like its historic one.

The front windows of the Pharmacy Museum display clear glass jars filled with colored water that pharmacists used to use to indicate their place of business. Inside, both walls are lined top to bottom with shelves holding countless containers filled with liquids, powders, and herbs historically employed to treat illnesses. The blues, ambers, and yellows within them brighten the dark wooden walls and the charcoal gray stone floor—the latter apparently the original made from what was once ship ballast.

In front of the shelved walls are display cases containing artifacts of historical medicinal practices: pills and powders with their original packaging, the first (cringe-worthy) hypodermic needles, tools for therapeutic bloodletting (including a jar labeled “Leeches”). Except for stopping to pay the attendant for entrance (a mere $5), I felt as if I’d walked into a business simply abandoned by its owner.

A hauntingly real pair of eyes in the ophthalmology collection.

Upstairs, where the pharmacist had made his living quarters, there is a more museological feel. A collection of eyeglasses explains treatments of vision problems and displays a pair of fake eyes that appeared uncannily animated. The other exhibit highlights medicinal and experimental uses of liquor (in case reveling tourists need an excuse for excessive imbibing).

Back outside, dusk was beginning to fall, so I headed over to the voodoo store to meet up with a haunted history tour. The guide promised a mixture of history and horror simply in his attire. He wore a blue collared shirt with sleeves rolled to just below his elbows and, over it, a beige suit vest with silk back. With a canvas messenger bag swung across his body, he looked like a Depression-era newsboy—save for the bright blue sneakers that stuck out beneath the cuffs of his baggy brown pants. Though he showed no apparent limp, he walked with a wooden cane that was tipped at the base with brass, and with which he seemed to deliberately beat out a tempo as we walked.

The guide told of ghost encounters in several buildings. People have been known, he said, to feel a child’s touch when walking past a burned-down orphanage. Others feel a chill at an intersection where dead bodies were once piled waist-high during an epidemic. On the balcony of a building once owned by Nicolas Cage (who refused to spend the night inside), he told us that some people have reported seeing a French woman chasing a child slave. His apparent cynicism seemed to disparage those who would believe in ghosts, even as he admitted to having taken part in paranormal investigations.

A haunted balcony in the French Quarter.

Though he was clearly trying to fit the role of “New Orleans haunted history guide,” he came off as rather ridiculous. Sure, I imagine a ghost guide to be a bit quirky, but I did not anticipate pretention. In addition to his outfit’s bid for some sort of historically-inspired hipness, his narration was a mélange of historical details, reported ghost encounters, and measured skepticism. He mentioned several times his research in “the archives” and derided the city’s requirement for tour guide certification, implying he never learned much from their “required books.” His talk seemed inappropriate for a tour guide; he spent more time trying to impress us with his critical perspective than in bringing the past vividly to life.

As a historian myself, I felt put out by his cynicism. If you are going to give a ghost tour, the least you can do is believe in ghosts! His skepticism was akin to giving a history tour and constantly questioning whether the events you’re interpreting even happened. When asked directly, the guide would not admit to ever encountering a ghost himself. Which is fine; I don’t expect ghost encounters to be a requirement for all haunted history guides. But don’t break the spell in which tourists are wrapped. Even practical-minded historians are looking for a little magic in New Orleans.

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Museums and curiosity: why I love dusty old exhibits

Museums these days can be anything. Their exhibits flash and blink with new technologies. Visitors interact, push buttons, listen to audio tours, and even perform experiments. But the museum experiences I love are quieter enterprises.

Butterflies inspire curiosity at the May Natural History Museum of the Tropics. (Photo by Author)

When I step off Manhattan’s honking streets and into the American Museum of Natural History, I avoid the bright new dinosaur halls and head straight to the darkness of the Hall of Northwest Coast Indians. I’ve lingered on the benches here watching school tours walk swiftly through, on to the next, brighter, more exciting venture, and felt alone in my appreciation for the hall’s simplicity.

To preserve the paint on the wooden objects, the lights in the Northwest Coast hall are always dim, creating a nostalgic but reverent atmosphere. Towering totem poles line the center hallway while small alcoves lined with glass cases provide intimate spaces for observation. The smell of cedar surrounds you as you gaze into the vacant eyes of carved masks depicting animal and human spirits. Though the masks were used in dances, they have come to rest here, to be appreciated as things themselves. Without an accompanying video, we must use our imaginations to bring the costumed dancers to life.

While technology does not prohibit imagination, its use in museums seems to distract from museum objects—and from slow observation. Multilayered labels and computer accompaniments give away too many answers. Visitors are left with no time to wonder.

As a kid, I remember sitting for hours in front of a single dinosaur skeleton, sketching and making up stories about it in my notebook. The old exhibits provide space for imagination and creativity. In larger institutions like AMNH families and schools largely ignore these quiet exhibit halls. Only quirky museum-historian types like myself stay long enough to enjoy their aura.

Peale, "The Artist in His Museum" (1822).(Philadelphia Museum of Art)

At a small, old museum in a campground outside Colorado Springs, however, I found such minimally labeled exhibits are not as outdated as some may think. Behind a blue velvet curtain (ala Charles Willson Peale), a true cabinet of curiosity lies waiting to inspire wonder.

The May Natural History Museum of the Tropics remains much as it was arranged in the 1930s by a father-son team of collectors, James and John May. The single-room exhibit is lined with beautiful wood-framed cases containing some 8,000 insects pinned to ivory velvet backings. No modern interpretation is provided. Instead, you are left to gaze in wonderment at the hundreds of multicolored butterfly species that seem as vibrant and crisp as they must be in the wild.

A display-case lined aisles of the May Museum. (Photo by Author)

Here, I observed families walk the aisles with the children as intrigued by the collection as any I have seen in a more technologically-oriented exhibit. They looked at the wings and the colors with more care than I would have expected. And, they asked questions. Why is this butterfly blue and that one orange? Parents answered as best they could. While their answers may not have provided the most scientific of explanations, the museum was providing “interaction.” This was hands-on learning between parents and children. And it struck me that what we often loose in high-tech, hands-on exhibits is a sense of communal and shared learning—and a tradition (at least in my family) of education as bonding.

The Hall of Pacific Northwest Coast Indians and the May Natural History Museum encourage curiosity. That they don’t give away all the answers earns them criticism for being outdated. But, to inspire is sometimes better than to educate. If these exhibits spark inspiration for the pursuit of more knowledge, they have done their job well.

Categories: Museums, Nature | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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