One of my favourite views in all of San Francisco is this:
Look up from the Amazon exhibit in the California Academy of Sciences, and above your head is dusky green water and heavy, slow fish, all shot through with sunlight from the window-pierced roof. Three stories of simulated rainforest float between you and that roof -- lush bursts of plants, birds, and fragile butterflies; people drifting on a spiral boardwalk; glass dome and metal struts that make you feel like you're inside a giant terrarium -- and everything is full of light.
There's something thrilling about captured nature. It's nothing at all like the real thing. It's not wild and messy, it's not going to scare you in the night; but it's there, close enough to touch and smell, held still by the constraints of space and practicality. You can see it, without worrying that it's going to run away, without going on some outrageous expedition that (let's be honest) most of us will never go on, no mater how adventurous or lucky we get.
My favourite natural history museum (so far) is the Harvard Museum of Natural History in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I remember: room after room of specimens, a hallway of butterflies pinned to walls, and the justifiably famous Blaschka glass flowers.
I pretend that my love for natural history museums is inherited. I have a grandfather who tells me about sailing past the Rock of Gibraltar, the gutters of Morocco, illicit rides on plantation trolleys meant for sugarcane. He likes natural history museums too. We once went to a natural history museum in Las Vegas, some distance away from the neon lights and shiny buildings. It was a small, dim place with the processed smell that comes from air conditioning in a desert. It had several rooms of taxidermied animals, most of them too crowded together to pass for a realistic diorama. Some of them had holes and places where they were going bald. Our taxi never turned up, so we walked back to the hotel.
My other grandfather has always had a stuffed pheasant on a coffee table in his living room. "From my hunting days," he always says. It has unbelievable yellow eyes, and I was never allowed to touch it, but I would go and stare at it when I was supposed to be eating dinner. The best taxidermied animals only look real for a second, because then my eye expects them to breathe and move and start. The poor ones don't look real at all. The stillness that gives them both away also lets me glut myself on detail. To notice that this is the color green on a pheasant's head; or, this is what a viperfish (a viperfish!) looks like when my nose is an inch away from its teeth. I like natural history museums because they populate my imagination. They give depth to the world I carry around in my head, which is what I look through when I examine the world outside. They educate my sense of wonder.
I recently listened to an interview with Richard Dawkins. He said that there's no reason why an ordinary person would have to know about evolution. A person could grow up, get some modicum of education, go to work, get married, have children without knowing that we, as a species, evolved. A person could do that and suffer no ill effects. But wouldn't it be a waste, Mr. Dawkins said. Wouldn't it be sad, a missed opportunity to know something that is so wondrous and elegant and true.