I have been working for the department of paleontology at the AMNH for a year and every time I am there my sense of present time gets seriously disrupted. Depending on the task or the collection floor I am working on sometimes I feel as if I were transported to the early 20th century, other times the 30’s or the 60’s come magically alive, sometimes it is the combination of all those periods existing simultaneously, throwing in the aura of a million year old fossil to top it all off.
While doing re-housing on the horse fossil collection floor I kept coming across fossils wrapped in newspapers from the 20’s and 30’s (a distant past wrapped in a more recent past). These newspapers besides revealing the time and techniques of original storage also revealed individual quirks of the people involved, for instance: someone had taken careful precaution to wrap certain fossils with pages featuring pictures of movie starlets only.
Many fossils were stored in old cigar, jewelry or candy boxes. In certain drawers mixed with the horse bones there were letters and invitations, such as a letter addressed to the department’s first curator Henry Fairfield Osborn himself or an invitation to a men’s club (no ladies allowed) to some museum employee that worked there in the 1950’s.
Adding to the magical time zone confusion of the paleontology department is the spatial organization of the department itself. Even though the paleontology department is a part of the 5th floor, because of building additions over the last 100 years upon entering the department one is on the 8th floor. The art, tools and furniture are a lovely mix of all decades spanning from the time the museum opened to the present. Once down in the collection floors there are walls where remains of old widows or doors are visible and staircases stop unexpectedly on certain floors only to resume on other ones.
The nature of overlapping boundaries between the past or pasts and the present is clear when working at the AMNH, this phenomena though is not limited to working in museums, we are in the present but at the same time linked to the past, perhaps in some cases linked more intimately then we realize.