Out of This World

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.

At the same time, she has revamped old halls, produced an ongoing stream of exhibits devoted to contemporary issues such as biodiversity, and generally offered a broader mix of programs, appealing to a wider audience, than any of her predecessors.

“This is the place where you have the nexus between science and culture,” she says. “We’re looking with deep intensity from the smallest – genomes and DNA sequencing – to the largest issues in astronomy. My timing was fortuitous. I understood it was a powerful age of discovery.”

Indeed, the museum has swung back into vogue at a time when science, from space exploration to string theory, has never been more popular. “Twenty years ago, I don’t know that any newspaper had a science section,” says paleontologist and author Stephen Jay Gould. “Now they all do.

“There’s a concern with the environment that raises interest in natural history that didn’t exist twenty years ago,” adds Gould, who did his dissertation research in the museum’s invertebrate-paleontology department and has written a column for the museum’s Natural History magazine since 1974, “and more interest in evolution, probably because of those idiots in Kansas, and more interest in genetics, because it’s so much in the news now.”

Futter herself came late to science; her consuming passion has been as an administrator. At Barnard during the Vietnam War, when others were protesting, Futter joined the college’s board of trustees as a student representative. After graduating from Columbia Law School, her father’s alma mater, she became a full member of Barnard’s board while practicing corporate law at Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy. In 1981, she assumed Barnard’s presidency, becoming at 32 the youngest person ever to run a major American college.

“My timing was fortuitous,” Ellen Futter says of her tenure at the museum. “I understood it was a powerful age of discovery.”

When Futter took the helm of the museum (earning, at $400,000 per year, nearly double the salary of her predecessor, George D. Langdon), it was a staid place where fiscal conservatism and traditional displays held sway. Futter – whose other accomplishments include being the first woman to chair the board of the New York Federal Reserve Bank as well as memberships on the boards of Con Edison, Bristol-Myers Squibb, and J.P. Morgan – tapped her extensive contacts not just for funding but to boost the museum’s visibility.

One of her first acts at the museum was to commission a national science-literacy survey with simple questions – such as whether dinosaurs and humans ever co-existed – which, as it happened, many Americans couldn’t answer. The survey was a strategic masterstroke, sounding alarm bells that the American public is scientifically illiterate. The attention garnered by the poll positioned the museum as a leading player in science education. nasa reacted by giving the museum $8 million to found a National Center for Science Literacy, Education, and Technology – the largest grant of its kind ever made by the agency.

“I understood we had an opportunity to enhance science literacy,” Futter says, “to combine excellence in science and exhibitions with the capacity of education programs and new technology.”

Now the museum has embraced education with missionary zeal. It is the fastest-growing department, with an increase from 25 to 90 staff members, supplemented by a corps of teaching volunteers. Futter’s troops produce a children’s magazine supplement to Time for Kids distributed to 2 million students nationwide; a popular Internet site that has transmitted live Webcasts from expeditions in the Gobi Desert; earth-science and biodiversity curricula for students; and “Moveable Museum” Winnebagos that take artifact-filled paleontological and anthropological classrooms to city schools.

“Many of the major museums are vigorously pursuing similar kinds of things,” says Nina Jensen of Bank Street College. “But the American Museum of Natural History has taken a leadership role in the field.”

Futter obsesses about anything relating to the museum’s image, from the choice of butterfly prints for the latest scarves in the gift shop to the entangled eighteen-month process of developing a new logo – a stick figure in front of a broken circle. Under her, the museum’s mantras have become currency, content, and synergy. The temporary exhibits she approves focus on trends that engage pop-culture devotees, such as last year’s Shackleton-expedition show that appealed to the extreme-adventure Outside magazine demographic, and the current “Body Art,” which comes in the wake of all manner of body-piercing mania. Futter made sure the Rose Center’s exhibits were content-packed with interesting facts, and she has “synergized” the museum’s science, exhibition, and education staffs, which were formerly as separate as church and state.

But to the extent that the museum has academic values, it also has academic politics. Former staff members (almost always off the record) gripe that Futter’s focus on image and pop science – as well as her powerful connections – are narrowing the scope of the museum’s scholarly work while Disnefying the exhibitions. She has made the museum an often contradictory place where “currency” sometimes prevails at the expense of tradition, “content” sometimes translates to “lowest common denominator,” “interactivity” can mean passively looking at a screen, and “synergy” reads to some as conflict of interest.

Take the 1999 exhibit “Epidemic! The World of Infectious Diseases,” sponsored by drug behemoth Bristol-Myers Squibb. That Charles A. Heimbold Jr., Bristol-Myers’s CEO, sits on the museum’s board looked like natural fund-raising synergy. That Futter sits on Bristol-Myers’s board had the appearance of conflict of interest. That, as The Nation first reported, Richard Colonno, a Bristol-Myers vice-president, served on a special advisory committee that helped “shape the content of the exhibition” suggested in-house censorship that blunted related issues such as pharmaceutical price-gouging. Moreover, the fixation in “Epidemic!” on voracious germs over complex environmental factors in the spread of disease looked like oversimplification for the masses.

“We did not say with infectious diseases that we were going to teach molecular biology,” says Futter, explaining what one might call the spoonful-of-special-effects-makes-the-science-go-down philosophy of exhibiting. “When you present science through compelling topics, you can be open and accessible.”

In the name of currency and education, some of the museum’s offerings seem less ambitious than they could be. The butterfly conservatory, in which tropical Lepidoptera flit around a walk-in vivarium, is sweet and pretty but has all the scientific depth of a petting zoo; the most interesting fact about the show – that by importing butterflies from farms in Central America the museum promotes rain-forest conservation – is posted on a sign outside the space.

“The great challenge is not to dumb it down,” Futter agrees, while disputing the notion that the museum’s displays sometimes appear scientifically diffuse. “We have objects that are real. This is about the power of reality and authenticity and creating wonder, which is the predicate for learning. In a world that has a preponderance of the faux, it’s great to see the impact of the real.”

The museum’s next real dinosaur show will feature the first appearance in North America of the famed Mongolian “fighting dinosaurs” – skeletons of a protoceratops and a velociraptor that were dug up locked dramatically in a mortal embrace. It’s also remarkable because next summer’s show represents the museum’s first big Spielberg-free, fact-based temporary dinosaur exhibit in a decade.

Sitting on a leather couch in his wood-paneled office surrounded by papers, journals, and guitar sheet music, a world-famous fossil hunter is describing the bonanza of dinosaur bones he and his field crew discovered in a section of the Mongolian badlands nicknamed “Death Row.” The woolly-bearded Michael Novacek, senior vice-president and provost of science, is heir to the museum’s legendary paleontology dynasty. It began with Barnum Brown, who found the first three T. Rexes ever (No. 3, found in 1908, resides on the museum’s fourth floor today) and took off in the twenties with Roy Chapman Andrews’s expeditions in the Gobi Desert that dug up many of the gargantuan specimens that now inhabit the revamped fossil halls.

“Not to sound arrogant or anything, but it’s like we’re showing Rembrandt and school of Rembrandt, and we once had the painters in-house,” Novacek says. He hopes in next summer’s exhibition to re-create a night scene from the Gobi of 80 million years ago, promising it will be “a serious scientific exhibit with lots of drama.”

The museum’s nineties dinosaur shows had lots of drama, too, but were less absolute about the scientific presentation. “The Dinosaurs of Jurassic Park,” organized on Langdon’s watch, raised eyebrows in 1993 because it was the museum’s first major-movie tie-in, but despite its hop onto the Hollywood bandwagon, the exhibit openly debunked some myths; it pointed out, for example, that scientists were nowhere close to harvesting dinosaur DNA from amber. But the “Lost World” show of 1997 went Hollywood one step further, showcasing ten dinosaurs from the movie made up by a prop master. The “school of Rembrandt” debased its own authority by uncritically presenting the school of impostors, prompting the Wall Street Journal to run a critique under the headline pretendasauruses invade museum world.

“Unfortunately, the emphasis on the tie-in to the film shortchanged the information in the exhibit,” Novacek complains.

“That wasn’t a show about science,” a former museum scientist counters. “That was a show about a movie in a science museum.”

Even more controversial was the off-road vehicle from Mercedes-Benz, the “Lost World” sponsor, installed as a prop among the dinosaurs. The plug represented a radical departure for an institution that had prided itself on being advertiser-free. “We’ve had almost no questions on sponsorship,” says Futter. “Those cars went on expedition in the Gobi. The curators were not troubled by that.”

Actually, a few scientists who felt the museum had crossed a line were troubled: “Curators objected strongly to the fictional aspects of that show and the pandering to the advertiser,” another former museum scientist recalls. “But they were railroaded into doing it.”

In a museum that has made such a strenuous effort to insulate itself from political controversy, problematic sponsors have been handled with kid gloves. De Beers, the cartel founded by Cecil Rhodes, sponsored a dazzling show through the Diamond Information Center that included Grace Kelly’s tiara and a brooch worn by Jackie Onassis, which, while on the one hand geologically in-depth, was on the other hand anthropologically reminiscent of InStyle magazine. Moreover, the program skirted collateral human-rights issues and environmental damage from mining.

“Money comes from biased sponsors with hot-potato issues, and when the exhibition goes up, big parts of the story get left out,” a former museum scientist charges. “You’ll never find evidence of censorship – except by inference, by information conspicuous by its absence.”

Futter counters that “sponsors provide funding and do not interfere with the content of an exhibition. Diamond mining goes on. We reported on how diamonds get mined and produced. I don’t think we left anything out.”

While Futter has heavily invested museum resources in high-profile shows and research, the infrastructure of the original landmarked buildings is under increasing pressure. The spillover from the additional Rose Center visitors, expected to increase the museum’s box office by another 1 million tickets annually, will only exacerbate the problem. The addition of 333,500 square feet of real estate, which extends the museum’s physical plant by 25 percent, is going to make Barbara Gunn’s job harder, too.

The museum’s senior vice-president for operations and government relations, Gunn, a petite Energizer Bunny in copper-rimmed glasses, oversees maintenance of the colossal labyrinth of aging, interlocking structures that covers the four blocks between West 77th and 81st Streets. Most of those buildings were erected before 1935, and although they are made of granite and brick, they have suffered from decades of benign neglect. A limited survey of the state of the museum’s façades, commissioned in 1998 from an architectural-restoration firm by the city’s Department of Design and Construction – as a major cultural institution, the museum has its maintenance costs covered by the city – resulted in a two-volume telephone-book-thick damage report chronicling the buildings’ repair needs and proposing a ten-year plan for attending to them.

It’s hard to keep up with Gunn as she gives a highlights tour of the premises, sprinting down infinite-seeming corridors on patent-leather lace-up boots, from the former library, a hidden two-story jewel with glass floors, to the dark vault of the Roosevelt rotunda where the backside of the plaster ceiling rosettes resembles a fragile waffled honeycomb.

“We’re showing Rembrandt and school of Rembrandt,” Novacek says, “and we once had the painters in-house.”

The final stop is the dinosaurs in the Bickmore Wing, the redbrick Victorian Gothic building that was the museum’s original permanent home when it opened in 1877 on a lonely plot of land seven years before the rise of its nearest neighbor, the Dakota. Credit for the remodeled interior, with its spectacular exposed lofty ceilings, is partly due to Gunn, whose staff once crawled above dropped ceilings to check out the condition of the original plaster overhead. Unfortunately, the exterior of the building, a stunning stone-trimmed façade with Moorish arches, is not in such great shape. The façades, being considered for cleaning later this year, are extremely soiled, and the original mahogany windows, with panes supplied by Theodore Roosevelt père (who had a plate-glass business on Maiden Lane), are decaying.

A more complicated issue is the state of the original nineteenth-century entrance on 77th Street, the one used year-round by busloads of schoolkids. Loose mortar and cracked concrete on top of the monumental arch let water leak through to the underside, where bricks are eroding and cracking. Meanwhile, the vaulted landing over the entrance is shored up by rusted steel beams and steel mesh, installed ten years ago to catch falling debris. In addition, the DDC report points out that “the steps down to the first-floor entrance are misaligned by an inch or more at their nosings so that adjacent step faces constitute a tripping hazard.”

“Bricks have been falling out of that archway for ten years,” says a source affiliated with the museum, standing under the troubled span. “If something fell off on a student, you’d have the whole building fixed in two minutes.”

“It’s not hazardous,” Futter insists when asked why a 1990 project to repair the entranceway approved by the Landmarks Preservation Commission never went into construction. “It’s a project worth doing and high on our list, but in an institution of this age and size, it will never all be up-to-date.”

But others suggest the focus on the new buildings has sapped attention from the historic structures. “Fred Rose would have done it!” says a source affiliated with the museum. “He was from the old hard-hat school of building. He loved coming to the planetarium site every day and talking to the welders and the ironworkers. He would have been fascinated by the old brick-and-mortar aspects. Unfortunately, now that he’s gone, I don’t know when they’ll get around to focusing on it.”

The Rose Center is the most talked-about addition ever to the American Museum of Natural History, but it is also the house that Fred Rose built, the magnum opus of a philanthropist who left his considerable mark on the New York Public Library, among other public institutions.

“My father always loved it when form and function were unified, and in the Rose Center, there is the strength of the extraordinary architectural image combined with the content, posing the central questions about our connection to space, that completely captivated him,” his son, Jonathan, recalls. “Just before he died, he said one of his greatest achievements was that he had enabled this tool to give people a new way of looking at the universe.”

The result is a bravura effort that in subtle ways acknowledges the museum’s history. The curved entranceway facing 81st Street echoes its counterpart on 77th Street. The semicircular dome of the old Hayden Planetarium has come full circle in the new sphere that houses the Space Theater. The 15.5-ton Willamette meteorite, a trophy once planted in the old planetarium, has been reincarnated as a teaching tool that anchors a display on planets.

“Now it tells a story line that meteorites have big impacts,” explains the planetarium’s charismatic director, Neil de Grasse Tyson. “They fall from the sky; they smash into things; they damage environments; they cause extinctions. And now it’s propped up and seems a little menacing.”

The museum is expecting lines as long as The Lion King’s and already has hired a crew of lecturers to amuse people standing in line with extemporaneous astro-bulletins. Visitors will be asked to pay suggested fees of $19 per adult and $11.50 per kid to get into the Hayden (including museum admission; more if you also want to go in the butterfly conservatory). That compares with suggested entry fees of $10 for adults and nothing for kids at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, with no surcharge for special exhibitions. Futter will need to sell all the tickets she can: So far, only about two thirds of the cost of the Rose Center has been raised, while the museum has assumed debt of some $66 million.

Perhaps the only drawback to the new planetarium is that, after an investment of $210 million, it seats 200 fewer people than the old planetarium. On one of the museum’s crowded days, when attendance hits 20,000, only 6,800 people – or about a third – of museum visitors will get to see the eighteen-minute show.

“The permanent collections were rich and dramatic to begin with, but we’ve become popular because of the exhibitions that offer things that are of acute interest,” Futter insists. “We haven’t shifted our mission. What we’ve done is shown in modern terms what we’re about.”

Futter may have more accurately captured what her transformation of the museum is about during a speech one month earlier, at a $5,000-per-plate dinner she threw for the beau monde under the big blue whale in the Hall of Ocean Life. “This momentous occasion should put to rest forever the notion that this museum is musty, dusty, or staid,” she said, toasting the black-tie crowd of benefactors. “Tonight we reveal that it’s not just bones and dinosaurs, not just birds, fish, and mammals, dead and stuffed. No, my friends, the new American Museum of Natural History species is unveiled. We are the party animals, Celebrataurus perpertualus, live and raring to go, ready for the third millennium.”

Out of This World