Pick from the Past
Natural History, March 1948

Meet the

A candid view of the man who answers your scientific questions and who travels to all corners of the world to
get information and specimens for public exhibition

THE word “curator” comes from the Latin word meaning “to care for,” and the museum curator was originally the one who cared for interesting objects placed on display. More recently, the curator’s duties have extended much further. He often makes long expeditions to gather the material and devotes much time to studying it scientifically and writing about it. And because the public is always curious to know more about these things, it has devolved upon the curator to take care of their inquiries—no small part of his day’s work.

Perhaps you would like to become better acquainted with this person to whom you bring your questions. The writer feels that he can introduce the curator without bias, because his own position, that of Research Associate in Anthropology, is at the foot of the ladder on the scientific staff, and his curatorial functions in Botany are strictly honorary and not executive. So these are the opinions of a disinterested onlooker.

Like the infant food of old, “we are advertised by our loving friends.” The American Museum of Natural History loves its Public, it exists for its Public, and to return to the simile, we are constantly striving to present visual instruction in its most attractive and digestible form for young and old alike.

Anyone who knows the Museum can see what a splendid job its Department of Education is doing; Dr. Russell, Chairman of that Department, and his staff of trained assistants are going far to lighten the load of the other curators. But I wonder how many beyond our granite walls realize the amount of time devoted to answering letters and receiving visitors.

How, Why, Where?

The inquiries come in by mail, by telephone, and by personal visits, and the curator is always happy to give the information, if he knows the answer. No one in search of knowledge is turned away, from the small boy who has found a funny looking rock to the man who thinks he has discovered a Rosetta Stone for deciphering the Maya hieroglyphics. But when a female visitor comes in with a miscellaneous lot of sea shells, and the expert spends precious hours classifying them, only to learn that the lady’s little boy, caring nothing for conchology, needed the information for school points, the curator begins to wonder whether research for Willy is strictly in his line of duty.

Then there is the Casual, who has an hour to kill and just dropped in to pass the time. And the more-to-be-pitied-than-censured introvert who is never given an opportunity to express an opinion at home; and the Tourist who has just returned from his or her first visit to Mexico and produces innumerable snapshots of Taxco and Cuernavaca.

Let no visiting student of any nationality infer from these remarks that he is ever interfering with business. He is always welcome to all the help the Museum can give him and must feel free to drop in and swap experiences and talk shop. The curator’s hours would be drab indeed, if these visitors were denied him.

The Press has been more than kind in giving us the right sort of publicity and stressing our needs editorially. But occasionally we are visited by a member of the Fourth Estate who is impatient with the unspectacular character of our expeditions. A colleague, returning from a season in the wilds of Central America, was once interviewed by a reporter. When our scientist began modestly to relate some of the highlights of his journey, the interviewer broke in: “Listen, the public isn’t interested in how you found a pile of old rocks and some busted pottery; what they want to know is how it feels to be chased across a tropical river by an alligator.” My colleague had to confess that he had never experienced that thrill.

Breasting the Tide of Error

Surely every curator sometimes feels that much of his effort goes toward merely correcting false impressions or theories. A couple once registered their indignation that our Mexican and Central American Hall contained no exhibits of Atlantis or the “Lost Continent of Mu.” Their indignation would, of course, have been stronger if we had taken space to show the truth about these romantic ideas. (See “Lost Continents,” by L. Sprague dc Camp, Natural History for May, 1946.) In the same hall a lady was quite scornful because our meticulously accurate casts of the colossal Quirigua stelae and the Mexican Calendar Stone were not the originals.

At times the unforeseen may strain the resources of a department to its capacity. In 1910, the popular author Gene Stratton-Porter published a book called A Girl of the Limberlost. It was about a young lady who made a modest fortune by selling moths and butterflies to a dealer. She received the most alluring prices for them, in particular for Eacles imperialis, the Yellow Emperor. This novel was followed in 1912 by a nature book, lavishly illustrated, called Moths of the Limberlost. People throughout the nation suddenly became moth-conscious, and our Insect Department was so besieged with offers from amateur collectors that the incoming mail was piling up like snowbanks in a blizzard. Dr. Frank Lutz adopted an ingenious expedient. He prepared and placed in the foyer of the Museum a case containing specimens of the moths mentioned in the books with the dealers’ prices then current—Yellow Emperor, 25 cents, Polyphemus, 10 to 15 cents, etc.

The bottom dropped out of the fictitious market, putting an end to dreams of sudden wealth and permitting our scientists to return to normal. The historic exhibit may still be seen, prices and all, in the Insect Mall.

The Flower that Never Was

The Museum belongs to the people of New York, and what they want we’ll try to give them—if we can be sure of what they do want! Anyone in the amusement field will back me up when I say that it is difficult to judge just what kind of entertainment will most appeal to the public. Special lectures and exhibitions have marked red-letter days in Museum attendance.

It is readily understandable that a lecture by Roy Chapman Andrews, telling of his expeditions to the Gobi Desert and the discovery of the dinosaur eggs, should have so jammed the auditorium that a repeat performance was necessary. And it is equally natural that when nuclear energy was a subject of the future, a movie on the Einstein theory of relativity produced a near riot, at which angry throngs bowled over the guards and stampeded into the lecture hall.

But am I to be believed when I state that the greatest attendance ever clocked at the Museum for a single day was recorded on November 4, 1933, when 40,484 people passed through our doors to see something which did not exist?

The occasion was the Autumn Flower Show of the Horticultural Society of New York, which was held in the 77th Street Wing. A false report had been circulated that a green rose was on display.

Those were the good old days when you didn’t have to stand in line for a half-hour to get into a popular movie, when there were no cigarette shortages and no nylon queues. And yet that multitude stood milling in front of the building and around the block, vainly hoping to see a mythical freak of the vegetable kingdom which, if it had been produced, would have been an eyesore and an abomination!

“A rose is a rose is a rose.” Einstein or Gertrude? Can you blame the curators or any of the Museum authorities if they occasionally slip up in judging the public taste?

No matter how carefully exhibits are labeled and described, they are sometimes unable to counteract what the visitor brings in his own head. A few years ago, the visit of a world-famous child movie actress caused a flutter of excitement through the Museum. An escort was assigned, and in the Triassic Dinosaur Hall a paleontologist was describing to the child star the technique of hunting for the remains of ancient animals in the Gobi Desert. Her California tutoress, doing a little exploring on her own, spied in an adjacent exhibit the skeleton of a gigantic Brontosaurus—an animal that became extinct about 120 million years before the Age of Man. “Come here, dear,” she called. “Look! The first animals domesticated by man. You know, ’Alley Oop.’”

I Would Like to Join an Expedition

If everyone who ever expressed that wish were laid end to end and were content to remain in that position, the curator’s lot would be an easier one. But would-be joiners keep bobbing up, particularly when it is known that an expedition is being organized.

They fall into several categories. At the nadir stands the Problem Child. He seldom applies in person, usually through a maternal parent. Mothers can be trying at times. Before the days of civil service examinations, Theodore Roosevelt once appointed a singularly dull and inept young man to the diplomatic service. When asked why he had done so, the President replied with emphasis, “I had the alternative of appointing young X or of killing his mother on my doorstep.” In our case, it would appear that the ewe lamb’s individualistic talents are not appreciated at school and that the confines of the home and even of summer camps are too restricted for the play of a spirit so free and untrammeled by conventions. The desert wastes or the jungle fastnesses alone could offer an outlet for his self-expression. Any expedition leader who, in a misguided moment, consents to take on one of these, may look for breakers ahead, and the consequences are none too happy for any of the parties concerned.

Next in line is the young man in search of adventure. No experience in field work in any branch of science but is used to roughing it. He thinks an expedition would be fun, and would even pay his way, if necessary. He is informed politely that exploring is a highly specialized and technical undertaking and that there is no vacancy for anyone except a scientist or an experienced hand.

In this category may possibly be placed the disillusioned businessman. Fed up with stocks and bonds, pestered by the “little woman,” he wants to put at least 3000 miles between himself and Wall Street. Qualifications? Well, he might go as photographer. He took some extraordinarily good movies of little Lester toddling across the lawn at Rainbow’s End. A polite thumbs down to him, also.

Next comes the serious student who has taken science courses in school with good marks and who wants to make a career of it. One cannot discourage a boy like this, but he has to be told that a few years spent in special preparatory study are necessary.

I would advise every would-be explorer to read Roy Chapman Andrews’ book This Business of Exploring (G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1935). May I quote a few extracts from Chapter I, “Exploritis.” “The explorer of today must first be a specialist. Thousands of men have applied for places on my own expeditions saying that they are ’good outdoor men’ but have no special training. I cannot even consider them. They would be expensive luxuries . . . There is only one answer: Train yourself for a technical or scientific job which fits into exploration . . . Adventures, of course, are always associated with exploration. Yet they are the one thing that the real explorer tries to guard against. My favorite quotation is Stefansson’s dictum, ‘Adventures are a mark of incompetence.’” Which means that if you have prepared yourself adequately, you may cross a tropical river without the impetus of an alligator speeding you on.

Exploring is associated in the public mind not only with adventure but also with romance. Yet in practice it is an almost unremitting struggle between man and nature to determine which can outsmart the other, and it is often a difficult, unpleasant existence. A personal experience, not important in itself, may serve to illustrate the point. At the end of a tough season hunting for ruins in the Yucatan bush, R. E. Merwin and I came upon our greatest find, a magnificent and well preserved Maya temple. As we were laboriously hacking away with machetes at the trees and vines which almost hid the structure, Ray turned to me and said, “What shall we call it?” Without much thought I replied, “How about Pascua?” “Why Pascua?” “Because we found it on Easter Sunday.” Ray grunted and said, “Why not call it ‘Work-like-hell’?” Aching bones and itching hide usually dampen the thrill of discovery. There is not much romance in exploring except in retrospect.

The Career

The curator is frequently asked how one can become, say, an anthropologist. And, “Is there any remuneration in it as a career?” So many of these inquiries are phrased in the same terms that they might be form letters that teachers have given their pupils to send in. The curator is tempted to answer that it all depends upon one’s definition of the word “remuneration.” It has been said many times but still bears repeating that to succeed in any branch of science, granting the ability is there, one must have been bitten by the bug. If the bite is severe enough, you will become an anthropologist, a geologist, or a zoologist whether there is money in it or not. But it means three or four years of college and, if the virus is still active, one more year for an M.A. or three for a Ph.D.

When you have bagged your sheepskin, there is a good chance that you may land a position in a university or a museum with a starting salary of from $2000 to $3500 a year, depending on the locality. Maintain a family on that? It’s being done, and if destiny has shaped you for that niche, you’ll find it a more satisfying spot than many a cushy pocket yielding pay dirt.

Could You Please Tell Me?

Queries come in, and believe me they vary.
     What is the weight of an elephant’s ear?
What shall I do for an ailing canary?
     What is the mileage from Venus to here?

What is the dress of a Balinese dancer?
     What is the sense of an Iroquois mask?
Buzz the Museum—we may have the answer;
     We’ll try to solve any question you ask.

It would be impossible to estimate the number of questions that are posed to museum employees in the day’s work. The vast majority of them show intelligent interest and thought. But once in a while one comes in that sticks in the memory when the others are long since forgotten. Here are a few examples.

“Please send me all the information you have on primitive man.” In our library we have about 15,000 volumes on this subject. Every department is familiar with this sort of question. It even comes over the telephone, as, “Please tell me everything you know about fishes.”

“How many redheads are there in the United States?” Statistics unavailable. Also, we must remember that not all the redheads were born that way.

“Would you mind sending me some data concerning undiscovered treasure in the Central American mountains. If possible, kindly let me know its general location. Thank you.”

A research worker called up to ask about man’s use of petroleum two million years ago, and could she have photographs of animals that lived at that time. Even the ape man began to walk erect something less than half as long ago as that, and Homo sapiens did not put in an appearance until several hundred thousand years later.

“Did man 100,000 years ago have a better, equal, or poorer sense of smell than civilized man?” Documentary evidence being lacking, we might say that he perhaps smelled more if not better.

“Please explain an elephant’s trunk.” Answer: Elongation of the nose, also used as a hand. “But why?” One of those evolutionary things; it kept on growing and became prehensile like the tail of some monkeys.

“Can animals predict the weather?” No, except in the immediate future. Some animals are known to sense an approaching storm, like granpaw and his rheumatiz. This is an interesting question. There is an old established belief that animals, by various manifestations, do predict the weather. The birds and bats that seem to be starting south ahead of schedule, the neighbor’s horse that has put on an extra-heavy coat, the squirrels that are unusually industrious in collecting their hoard, even the trees that bear an abundant crop of nuts and pine cones, all are looked upon as forecasting a hard and early winter. And at the approach of spring, “Ground-hog Day” furnishes perennial copy for the newspapers. But there is nothing known to science that would support any of these beliefs. If there were, the weatherman would probably include on his staff a corps of peripatetic naturalists.

A young woman artist came in one day to see our bee specialist and explained with some diffidence that she had been commissioned by an advertising agency to make a picture of a bumblebee sitting in an armchair. Her question was what posture would a bee assume under the circumstances. It was our scientist’s considered opinion that the bee, being a social insect, would recline with the same aplomb on an overstuffed chair as on a rose petal.

A research worker called up in all seriousness to ask if a parrot had ever been successfully crossed with a flying fish. The curator replied, “No, not even with a parrot fish.”

One lady reported that she had a female canary which was not mated but had laid 22 eggs in the previous six months. When out of her cage, the bird tried to build nests on the mantelpiece and in other parts of the room but always retired to her cage to lay the eggs. Question: “How can I stop her laying eggs?” The lady was advised by our Associate Curator of Birds to get a congenial mate for her canary, which would probably then settle down to a humdrum domestic existence, build her nest in the cage, and lay her eggs where they belonged. How could a psychiatrist improve on that advice?

A boy about seven years of age, in a very tense state, barged unannounced into the office of the Associate Curator of Fishes, his fist clenched. Opening his hand, he disclosed a tiny and thoroughly dehydrated fish and exclaimed bitterly, “Why is this guppy sterile?” It developed that he had removed it from his school aquarium and, having taken it home to his own container, was disgusted that it had not forthwith produced a colony of baby guppies.

In contrast to this was the assignment of the same curator to make a complete survey of all the game fishes and game fishing facilities of the coastal waters of North Carolina.

The “Museum Piece”

The Museum receives a variety of curious offers. This one comes from our general files: “Sir, I beg to ask you whether you have interest in buying an old horse shoe which I found during an excursion under the barn of Rip Van Winkle’s house in the catskill mountains in the year 1903 . . . I am to go to sell this old and rare document of the first emigrants of the U.S.A. at a moderate price.”

(Sure that excursion wasn’t under the Headless Horseman’s barn?)

Offered for sale to the Museum’s Library: “Nature Musine of History, New York. Dear Gemerman: —I am writing you on a book my mother have. It is the old Elemendary speling book.”

A lady came into the Library to ask if we had any books on “human parasites.” She was not satisfied with what our books on entomology provided, for she was interested in the people who started life as insects and turned into human beings. When this possibility was questioned, she protested that she had seen one with her own eyes, a woman on a street in Colorado who was “very peculiar looking and had obviously begun life as an insect.”

The Technical Expert

To indicate how diverse are the Museum’s services, I submit the following samples. The New York State Conservation Commission recently seized a bear which it claimed had been illegally shot, since it was in their opinion less than a year old, the legal limit. In order to establish their claim, the authorities sent the bear to the Museum to have the age expertized. The Department of Mammals easily confirmed the conservationists’ contention that this was a “bear of the year” and that the hunter didn’t have a leg to stand on. They were prepared to appear as witnesses if the case ever came to court.

A trained kangaroo once entered an elevator in one of the municipal buildings in a Mid-west city. The elevator operator, not seeing its long tail, closed the door too soon, injuring the animal fatally. The trainer of the animal brought suit against the city for an extremely large sum. One of the American Museum’s experts on kangaroos was summoned clear from New York to testify how valuable or replaceable the animal might have been to its owner, who exhibited the kangaroo professionally as a boxer. Our scientist demonstrated on the witness stand how a kangaroo “boxes” naturally when approached by someone who knows how to make the most of the animal’s normal reactions. He convinced the court that the world had probably not lost a Jack Dempsey of the kangaroo world and also that even “educated” kangaroos should not be allowed in public elevators without competent escort.

One of our curators, an expert in physical anthropology, is not infrequently called upon, like King Solomon, to settle questions of paternity; and he has other unusual commissions relating to identification. To mention but one, a little girl in the Bronx disappeared, and when some charred bones were found in the furnace, the superintendent of her building came under suspicion. The fragments, all of which were exceedingly small, were sent to the Museum for analysis. Our specialist established that, though some of the pieces were from animals, others were undoubtedly human, and he was even able to determine the age of the individual. His findings led to the conviction of the suspect.

The curator is something more than a guide to the exhibits and an answer man. His duties are manifold. He is responsible for the care and the building up of the collections in his custody, not only the material on exhibition but the vast amount stored in special quarters for study purposes. Part of his time is devoted to field work, and there is a great deal of research to do on his finds after he returns home. He has various scientific papers to write, and some lecturing and teaching. Then, too, there are the services to scientists who come from other parts of the world to consult him and to study the collections.

Some Friendly “Don’ts”

Therefore, if you wish to help ensure the even functioning of the curator’s mental processes, may I offer a few suggestions.

Don’t call the curator on the telephone and pose questions without first trying the encyclopaedia and the World Almanac.

Don’t try to get him to write an article for which you get paid and he doesn’t. He has his own compositions to draft.

Don’t ask him to come to your office to give you information, and when he suggests your coming to the Museum, exclaim: “But I haven’t time for that!”

Don’t instruct your secretary to “contact” the curator, and when she gets him, keep him hanging on the line for five minutes or more until you are ready to speak with him.

If you are engaged in solving a crossword puzzle, don’t call up the Curator of Mammals and ask him the name of a three-toed sloth in two letters, or a five-lettered African mammal of the giraffe family beginning with O. The curator knows the answers, but remember what it was that broke the back of the Bactrian mammal in five letters.

The curator usually lunches in the Museum cafeteria at 12 noon. If you are paying him a visit, unless you can accept his invitation to lunch, don’t arrive at 11:50 and keep him talking until about 1:00 P.M. He may have breakfasted at 7:30 or earlier.

And the biggest “don’t” of all: Don’t hesitate to call on him if you are really stuck with a problem that is in his field. He will be only too happy to help you to the best of his ability.

Although there stands in one of our halls the skeleton of Barnum’s original jumbo, we do not subscribe to the opinion of the great showman that “the public likes to be fooled.” The intelligent visitor knows that we are presenting more than a “stuffed circus” or a side show of preserved freaks. There is a gradual evolution in exhibition technique; and in holding the mirror up to nature we try increasingly to reflect accurately and dynamically the world of nature and to provide the maximum of education and enjoyment with the minimum of “museum fatigue,” physical and mental.

The man I have been describing is an essential and very human cog in the mechanism of a well-run museum. With these random sketches I have tried to provide a glimpse of his activities. Mr. and Mrs. John Q. Public, Miss Jane, and Master Johnny, meet the Curator.

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