People of all ages walked toward a dimly lighted hall, labeled Milstein Hall of Ocean Life, that emitted a mysterious blue glow. Intrigued, I followed the crowd. As I walked in, the overwhelming aroma of chlorine greeted me while the eerie sounds of gently swirling water currents echoed throughout the hall. Looking up at the ceiling, I saw multiple monitors depicting different fish swimming from one screen into the next. Beside me a 94-foot blue whale hovered from the ceiling. It was as if I had taken a dive and plunged into the ocean depths.
“Everything looks so real!” exclaimed 8-year-old Australian native Tom Scrivenger, who was visiting New York City with his family for the week. “When you walk in, it sounds like when you put a shell to your ear! There are so many colorful fishes swimming around me.”
The Milstein Hall of Ocean Life is one of many exhibits that the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) offers daily to attract visitors from around the world. Opened in 1869, the AMNH began only as a museum and library. The initial purpose was scientific research only, but after years of exploration and collecting rare artifacts, they decided to extend the building’s premises and share their findings with others.
According to Forbes Traveler's 50 Most Visited Tourist Attractions, the AMNH is “one of New York’s chief attractions,” drawing in 4 million visitors yearly. It ranks 40 on the Forbes list, beating out famous world attractions such as England’s the London Eye (44), France’s Palace of Versailles (45) and India’s Taj Mahal (50).
The institution, located on Central Park West and 79th Street on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, houses 45 permanent exhibits, a library, a planetarium and a research center, in a four-floor building that sits on 18 acres. The museum provides a perfect mixture of education and entertainment, which contributes to its social, cultural and educational impact on New York City.
“This is a great place to take my family because my kids enjoy the dinosaurs and different simulations. It’s relaxing for me and my husband as well,” said 36-year-old Boonai Diaz. “The city’s so busy, and it’s nice to take a walk throughout the museum.”
The fourth floor is where you will find most of the visitors because the distinctive fossil halls hold eye-catching, unique displays. This location houses more than a million vertebrate fossils of various species. Visitors mostly enjoy the Saurischian and the Ornithischian halls because actual dinosaurs’ skeletal structures are on display. The numerous hands-on activities dispersed throughout the hall, such as interactive computer stations, attract the attention of younger visitors and allow the user to explore the history of dinosaurs.
In addition to the clever interactive displays appealing to children, the museum serves a strong educational purpose for visitors such as college students and teachers. Rutgers University freshman Michelle Drzewiecka recently visited the museum to complete a paper for her class in physical anthropology and archeology. “The [Spitzer Hall of Human Origins] was full of information about human evolution,” Drzewiecka said. “I really got a better understanding of the material we learned in class through the exhibitions.”
The Anne and Bernard Spitzer Hall of Human Origins is a popular permanent exhibition at the AMNH. Visitors follow arrows that guide them through a chronological journey of human evolution. The displays are especially informative and convincing because they are realistic representations of our ancestors’ physical appearances and way of life. Along with the lifelike exhibits, the museum also incorporates fossil evidence to support each theory made about human evolution.
“I get to see the crowds of people who come in and out of the museum every day, and surprisingly there are quite a few familiar faces,” said Chris Marmol, a museum employee. “Most people think that the museums are for tourists, but the most interesting thing that I noticed here is that the majority of visitors are locals.”
The AMNH serves as the perfect escape for inhabitants of Manhattan, who constantly have to squeeze into crowded subways and weave their way through busy sidewalks. It gives them a chance to breathe in some well-deserved fresh air and enjoy the riveting presentations about historical, biological and cultural mysteries.
New Yorkers, such as SoHo resident Carlo Portes, casually visit during leisure time. “I work near Central Park so occasionally during my lunch breaks I visit the museum and stroll through a few exhibits,” said Portes. “The place is so big that I can only visit two or three exhibits each time. So basically, I have a new adventure whenever I am there.”
Others, like New York University’s first-year undergraduate student Josh Lee, visits to unwind from an exhausting, long day of classes. “I often come to the museum to get away from the city’s fast-paced life. It’s just so relaxing and fascinating here,” Lee said. “And plus, I could just pay a dollar to get in. It’s a really great deal.”
The AMNH is funded entirely by the City of New York, Office of the Mayor, the Council of New York, the Office of Manhattan Borough, the Department of Cultural Affairs and the Department of Design and Construction. The daily full admission for the museum is $15, $8.50 and $11 for adults, children and students/senior citizens, respectively.
However, the visitors do not necessarily have to pay the suggested full price; they can simply make a donation, of any amount, to gain admission into the museum. With this rare offer, many guests usually spend their leftover money at the museum’s constantly crowded cafes and gift shops.
In addition to its 45 permanent exhibitions, the AMNH also offers temporary exhibitions, such as the Butterfly Conservatory, which houses approximately 500 species of butterflies, and Water: H2O = Life, which explores water’s importance to all life. These fleeting displays explore exciting topics that you rarely find in other museums. “This museum is truly something special. Every time I visit the museum, it has something new to offer,” says Saad Ansari, a freshman at Rutgers University. “I never get bored of it because they always update the museum, and even change up the permanent exhibitions.”
Normally, you think you could never see the stars in New York City, especially with all the lights from skyscrapers dominating the skies and car headlights illuminating the area. However, the museum’s Hayden Planetarium, at the Rose Center for Earth and Space, simulates the stars, constellations and planets of the solar system, which allow visitors to take in realistic, majestic beauty.
The Butterfly Conservatory, Water: H2O = Life Exhibit and the Hayden Planetarium are only three of the numerous presentations that the museum offers to transport visitors from their daily lives into lifelike simulations of the magnificent ecosystems, scientific mysteries and society’s current issues. To see the AMNH for yourself, hop on the B or C subway line and take it to the 81st Street station. There is magic there waiting for you.
Anne P. Rivera is a journalism major at Rutgers-Newark. Posted September 2008.