Founded in 1869 and opened to the public in 1877, the American Museum of Natural History has been both a much-beloved New York institution and an important center of international scientific research in many fields--notably, paleontology, herpetology, ornithology, entomology, botany, and anthropology. The museum's eminence in these and other areas has come from many sources, from generous patrons to death-defying field researchers and patient laboratory workers. It continues to grow, writes Joseph Wallace in this close-up view of the work of the museum and its staff, as the AMNH involves itself in such matters as the conservation of Komodo dragons, the genetic study of unisex lizards, the surprisingly controversial classification (or, better, reclassification) of the world's birds, and the cataloguing of artifacts of lost species and cultures.
As visitors tour the halls of the museum, taking in images of Siberian shamans and Texas dinosaurs and countless other wonders, they will find many of these points mentioned in the placards that accompany each exhibit. Joseph Wallace's book can be thought of as a set of learned, highly readable footnotes to these placards--a fine companion for a tour, to be sure, but also a lively survey of the many sciences that enter into that great institution's work. --Gregory McNamee
From Publishers Weekly
Generations of New Yorkers and visitors have marveled at the American Museum of Natural History's best-known sights: a life-size blue whale, bolted to a ceiling as if airborne; a 75-times-bigger-than-life-size mosquito; gemstones gleaming like science's own crown jewels; rock slabs from volcanoes and meteorites; and most recently, a gee-whiz, digital-age planetarium. Science writer Wallace (The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaur) describes the AMNH through its most famous, colorful or important scientists and administrators, from the 1880s to the 1970s. Carl Akeley (1864-1926), taxidermist, sculptor and early crusader for Africa's endangered mammals, showed the American public that mountain gorillas weren't vicious, then fought to save the gorillas' Congo habitat. Richard van Gelder planned and designed the famous whale. (At one point the museum planned instead to show a "dead" and "beached" whale on the floor.) Hardworking, reserved Mary Cynthia Dickerson (1866-1923), "a shining example of the self-made naturalist," founded the museum's department of herpetology (reptiles). Among more recent eminences who've worked for the museum, Wallace covers Ernst Mayr (an expert on birds and on evolution) and paleontologist Niles Eldredge (of "punctuated equilibrium" fame; see review of his The Triumph of Evolution, above). Not a scholarly work, Wallace's account, which has a crazy-quilt feel with many small entries on this and that, is almost entirely admiring, with never an expos? and rarely a caveat. Dedicated AMNH fans might enjoy this neat tribute to researchers and educators, but even they will be better served by Douglas Preston's superb history of the museum, Dinosaurs in the Attic (1983). (June)
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