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No. 902:
Natural History Museum

Today, we visit a not-so-modern museum. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

I'm in Harvard's Natural History Museums asking the docent about exhibits. We speak in the hushed voice reserved for places filled with mystery. Suddenly 30 noisy school kids burst up the stairs. "Start in the back wing," she says, "The children will be gone by the time you finish."

I thank her and, when she's not looking, turn and follow the children into the Museum of Comparative Zoology. This wing had its origins in the mid-19th century. It's like my childhood museums. It's also one of the finest such collections in the world: an eerie jumble of bones, fossils, and stuffed animals.

The bones go far beyond the usual brontosaurus or tyrannosaurus. Here are paloelithic mammals from Australia and South America -- wild improbable beasts. Someone seems to've stirred mastodons, horses, and sabre-toothed tigers together into a strange animal soup. One case holds the skeleton of some antedeluvian swimming beast --30 feet long with a five-foot fanged jaw.

In the next wing, case after case of every beast and bird on the planet, stuffed and ready to eat you. I follow the children.

A few boys stop and randomly poke buttons on one of the electronic displays that's now a required part of every modern science museum. They poke and wander on. Those few video screens are out of place here. I suppose someone installed them because that's simply what you do in modern museums.

I watch the children following their teachers past cases of animals and bones, tugging at their coats. "Hey, Miss Brent, look at this!" The children are enchanted by three-dimensional beasts -- no computer screen image, no menu of canned questions.

These children create their own questions: Could I have petted this thunder lizard or would he have swallowed me in one gulp? How fast did he run? Did he sleep standing up? What did those bones look like when they still wore flesh?

The children move out into the Botanical Museum -- Harvard's huge and unique collection of plant samples cast and blown in glass -- exotic flowers seem alive. Diseased fruit seems to be dying still. A bee sips from a cowslip's bell, perfectly rendered at ten times true size. The 5-inch creature is real enough to fly out and sting you. This craftsmanship is far more compelling magic than buttons, screens, and questions invented by adults.

The children finally swirl down the iron staircase, sated with wonders and buoyant with questions of their own making. They've taught me a new lesson -- in an old place -- about learning. Now the holy quiet descends again, punctuated only by the hiss of outdated steam radiators.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

The Harvard University Museums of Natural History are located on the Harvard Campus in Cambridge, Massachusetts. They consist of the Museum of Comparative Zoology, the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, the Botanical Museum, and the Mineralogical and Geological Museum. For more on the glass works, see: Schultes, R.E., and Davis, W.A., The Glass Flowers at Harvard, Cambridge, MA: Botanical Museum of Harvard University, 1982.

A remarkable thing happened on the flight back to Houston from my Harvard visit -- after I'd written this episode. I read an article: Gould, S.J., Cabinet Museums Revisited. Natural History, Vol. 103, No. 1, January, 1994, pp. 12-20. Gould had just visited the venerable Natural History Museum in Dublin. He moved through its cluttered cases, kept in pristine 19th-century condition, and recited the names of naturalists who were touched by it as children. Interactive museums have their place in a TV-driven world, he says, but this is another kind of experience. We should not rob children of this experience.

Gould, you see, is curator of the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology.