Today, we visit a not-so-modern museum. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
I'm in Harvard's Natural
History Museums asking the docent about exhibits.
We speak in the hushed voice reserved for places
filled with mystery. Suddenly 30 noisy school kids
burst up the stairs. "Start in the back wing," she
says, "The children will be gone by the time you
I thank her and, when she's not looking, turn and
follow the children into the Museum of Comparative
Zoology. This wing had its origins in the mid-19th
century. It's like my childhood museums. It's also
one of the finest such collections in the world: an
eerie jumble of bones, fossils, and stuffed
The bones go far beyond the usual brontosaurus or
tyrannosaurus. Here are paloelithic mammals from
Australia and South America -- wild improbable
beasts. Someone seems to've stirred mastodons,
horses, and sabre-toothed tigers together into a
strange animal soup. One case holds the skeleton of
some antedeluvian swimming beast --30 feet long
with a five-foot fanged jaw.
In the next wing, case after case of every beast
and bird on the planet, stuffed and ready to eat
you. I follow the children.
A few boys stop and randomly poke buttons on one of
the electronic displays that's now a required part
of every modern science museum. They poke and
wander on. Those few video screens are out of place
here. I suppose someone installed them because
that's simply what you do in modern museums.
I watch the children following their teachers past
cases of animals and bones, tugging at their coats.
"Hey, Miss Brent, look at this!" The children are
enchanted by three-dimensional beasts -- no
computer screen image, no menu of canned questions.
These children create their own questions: Could I
have petted this thunder lizard or would he have
swallowed me in one gulp? How fast did he run? Did
he sleep standing up? What did those bones look
like when they still wore flesh?
The children move out into the Botanical Museum --
Harvard's huge and unique collection of plant
samples cast and blown in glass -- exotic flowers
seem alive. Diseased fruit seems to be dying still.
A bee sips from a cowslip's bell, perfectly
rendered at ten times true size. The 5-inch
creature is real enough to fly out and sting you.
This craftsmanship is far more compelling magic
than buttons, screens, and questions invented by
The children finally swirl down the iron staircase,
sated with wonders and buoyant with questions of
their own making. They've taught me a new lesson --
in an old place -- about learning. Now the holy
quiet descends again, punctuated only by the hiss
of outdated steam radiators.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
The Harvard University Museums of Natural History are
located on the Harvard Campus in Cambridge,
Massachusetts. They consist of the Museum of
Comparative Zoology, the Peabody Museum of
Archaeology and Ethnology, the Botanical Museum, and
the Mineralogical and Geological Museum. For more on
the glass works, see: Schultes, R.E., and Davis,
W.A., The Glass Flowers at Harvard,
Cambridge, MA: Botanical Museum of Harvard
A remarkable thing happened on the flight back to
Houston from my Harvard visit -- after I'd written
this episode. I read an article: Gould, S.J.,
Cabinet Museums Revisited. Natural
History, Vol. 103, No. 1, January, 1994, pp.
12-20. Gould had just visited the venerable Natural
History Museum in Dublin. He moved through its
cluttered cases, kept in pristine 19th-century
condition, and recited the names of naturalists who
were touched by it as children. Interactive museums
have their place in a TV-driven world, he says, but
this is another kind of experience. We should not
rob children of this experience.
Gould, you see, is curator of the Harvard Museum of
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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