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Out of This World

Fueled by a national obsession with all things scientific, the Museum of Natural History is about to launch the world's most advanced planetarium and the stunning new Rose Center for Earth and Space. All the attention is shaking the grande dame of Central Park West right down to its dinosaur bones.

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The snow is falling fast and heavy one morning in late January outside '21,' where Ellen V. Futter heats up a power-breakfast club with a rousing sermon on "Making New York City the Capital of the Universe." This is not idle bombast: As president of the American Museum of Natural History, she has overseen construction of the $210 million Frederick Phineas and Sandra Priest Rose Center for Earth and Space, whose main draw is the new Hayden Planetarium, home of the world's most technologically advanced sky show.

"We aim to take our visitors on a journey that reveals the grandeur of the larger universe all around us and, ultimately, humanity's place in it," Futter tells the group in a speech depth-charged with words like pizzazz and edge. "In a way, we are made to see how small we and our city are, but even so, just as visitors have long had to come to New York for the latest and greatest in financial markets and culture, making us the capital of the world, now they must come here to really see the stars and the larger cosmos beyond, making us, with acknowledged New York bravado, the capital . . . " -- well, you know, of the universe. With the new planetarium, Futter has also installed herself in the city's cultural firmament. She's propelled one of the city's best-loved institutions from the earth-centric, not to say musty, nineteenth century to the boundless, cyber-friendly twenty-first with the most ambitious expansion in its 131 years. "There is nothing that produces more, both financially and in terms of excitement, than a large-scale, cutting-edge, dazzlingly different, and utterly thrilling new facility like the Rose Center," she tells the crowd.

Futter's hyperbole is breathless -- but one couldn't call it inaccurate. The four-story, aluminum-clad Hayden sphere within the seven-story glass cube houses the centerpiece of the planetarium, the Zeiss Mark IX star projector. Visitors looking up at the dome powered by a supercomputer embark on a 5-billion-light-year journey based on a catalogue of astronomical images provided by nasa. The museum touts it as the world's largest, most powerful virtual-reality simulator.

The monumental Rose Center is actually the brainchild of Fred Rose, the real-estate titan and philanthropist who not only contributed the lead gift of $20 million but oversaw its design (by architect James Stewart Polshek) and construction with the same eye for detail he brought to his own properties. Rose died in September -- just three months before the first glittery receptions were held to announce the arrival of the city's hottest new highbrow watering hole since the Temple of Dendur.

All that sexy machinery is proving an irresistible lure. At '21,' Fern Mallis, the executive director of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, said she'd already scored the Rose Center for a Fashion Week bash. "We're bringing in the kind of lifestyle, fashion, and design press from all over the world that does not usually go to the museum," Mallis related, joking that "I hope the enormity of the universe will keep fashion in perspective for everybody." Then she added, "I'm telling all the fashion people they'd better come to our party, because once the Rose Center opens, it will be so crowded you'll never get in. You can't say you know what's going on in this town anymore if you haven't been to the Natural History museum lately. It's buzz central."

And who cares if it'll cost you $19 to see the stars?

The stars, of course, are only a tiny part of the story. To illustrate how vastly complicated her museum is, Ellen Futter likes to recount the directions her staff gives visitors seeking a particular exhibit: "To get to the Star of India diamond, you might say, 'Go through Asia, past the redwood, down the stairs by the Haida canoe, through human biology, and hang a right at the meteorites,' " she says during a conversation in the third-floor turret office down past the Eastern woodlands, just off the primates. "It always reminds me of the line in Peter Pan describing how to get to Neverland: 'Second star to the right and straight on till morning.' "

To use a somewhat more earthbound analogy, one might think of the museum as an archaeological dig in which the history of the natural sciences is stratified. Teddy Roosevelt contributed animal trophies bagged during African safaris, while J. P. Morgan donated Tiffany gems. Margaret Mead returned from the South Seas to her headquarters here. The story of the great museum-funded anthropological and geological expeditions is written in its vast collections, only a small sliver of which is on view at any one time. The rest resides in storage units throughout 24 buildings on the twenty-acre complex. The collections comprise, among many other things, 18 million insects; 900,000 birds, including Harry Houdini's stuffed gray parrot; the world's most important set of petrified mammal bones; some 2 million anthropological artifacts, the majority of them from the Americas; twin dinosaur fossils named Sid and Nancy; the microbiology department's pair of cryogenic vats named Adam and Eve that will house frozen tissue samples; a recently acquired collection of 5,000 leeches; and such curios as a giant sunfish donated by novelist Zane Grey, and Jumbo the Elephant, bequeathed by P. T. Barnum.

But in truth, many of the exhibitions -- beloved of generations of museumgoers -- might as well be in storage for all the attention they receive today. It would be easy to establish a thematic link -- say, with signage -- between the dusty totem poles in the Hall of the Northwest Coast Indians, the dioramas in the Akeley Hall of African Mammals, and the popular Hall of Biodiversity. Instead, the hyped new exhibits are roamed by weekend "Explainers" and get special tours -- while some of the older ones suffer from disuse.

Meanwhile, amid these artifacts, science goes on. The Museum of Natural History is also a research institution, with enough tenured curators to staff a medium-size college and laboratories where scientists pursue studies ranging from the evolutionary links between birds and dinosaurs to the microbiology of dragonfly DNA.

Futter hasn't focused on remaking and rationalizing the whole institution -- it's too vast, too cacophonous for that, and besides, she's not a scientist. Rather, she's worked to bring the museum into the mainstream of the city's life. A skilled fund-raiser, she has made the place corporate-friendly and loaded the board of trustees with activist members, including Harry P. Kamen, former CEO of MetLife; Alan "Ace" Greenberg, chairman of Bear Stearns; and David H. Komansky, CEO of Merrill Lynch. Since she took over in 1993, attendance has increased, and the endowment has nearly doubled.


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