If there’s a correct path through American Museum of Natural History, it’s totally elusive.
Depending on the direction of your approach to the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH), your first glimpse of the four-block complex on the Upper West Side could involve one of a few different moments in time. If you walk east on 77th St, you’ll be able to peek through trees at an imposing Romanesque facade of pink granite that could easily be a New England liberal arts school. Arrive at the main entrance, on Central Park West, and you’ll be under the shadow of a neoclassical monument to Theodore Roosevelt.
If you arrive on the C train, you’ll be greeted on the platform by whimsical mosaics of lizards climbing and snakes hanging from indigo blue tiles and an arrow pointing toward the museum’s interior entrance. If you ignore them, you will emerge instead on West 81st at a quiet park with a dog run at the foot of a giant glass cube that houses the Rose Center for Earth and Space.
Walk west down 79th, and, as of the time of this writing, you’ll catch the very top of the dramatic slopes of the under-construction Richard Gilder Center for Science, Education, and Innovation.
If there weren’t consistent signage or banners advertising the new(ish) Hall of Gems in the current westernmost wing of the museum, there would be almost no way of realizing that all of these discrete elements are part of the same structure. Ask people what they think of the museum, and they’ll invariably reach for an affective description rather than a physical one: memories of childhood visits, long conversations through meandering halls with past lovers, the theatrical impact of a single diorama, or an uncomfortable feeling about a problematic depiction. In everyone’s favorite indie film about divorce in Park Slope, The Squid and the Whale, the museum serves primarily as a coming-of-age symbol. In Night at the Museum, the interior is something entirely different than what it actually is, a fiction imagined on a soundstage in Los Angeles. There’s something about the place that resists taxonomizing.
It is not immediately apparent how a museum of natural history, ostensibly concerned with systematically cataloging the logic of the natural world, could be so illogical in its physical form. A brief look at the history of its development suggests that while cohesion might have been an early goal, it was quickly abandoned.
The original master plan, developed in 1872 by Central Park designers Calvert Vaux and Jacob Wrey Mould, envisioned a symmetrical campus with four entrances and four courtyards on the site of Manhattan Square, a park carved out as open space in the city’s 1811 commissioners’ plan. Founder Albert Smith Bickmore admired and looked to emulate European natural history museums that came out of the Enlightenment—in particular that paragon of colonialist spoils, the British Museum.
The first building in the AMNH’s complex, designed by Vaux and Mould, was built in the Victorian gothic style in 1877 as the first permanent home for the museum, previously housed in the Arsenal at 5th Avenue and 64th Street. The style matched the picturesque Central Park, where a romanticized version of nature was constructed on the cleared neighborhood of Seneca Village. The building, still there today, is now obscured by Josiah Cleaveland Cady’s 77th Street facade, which opened in 1908 and was designed in a Romanesque style, a more fashionable choice by the early twentieth century. These two elements played host to the Second International Eugenics Conference in 1921, an initiative spearheaded by the museum’s fourth president, Henry Fairfield Osborn, and now mostly relegated to oblivion. The centerpiece of the event, an exhibit titled The Hall of the Age of Man, steeped in the pseudoscience of racial hierarchy, was on view on the fourth floor of the Vaux and Mould building.
The next major addition was the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial entrance on Central Park West, designed by John Russell Pope and authorized by the state legislature after lobbying by Osborn. By the time of its completion in 1935 (just sixteen years after Roosevelt’s death), the campus had already begun to deviate from the original master plan, with structures in areas originally slated for courtyards. In yet another stylistic departure formalizing Roosevelt’s patron saint status, Pope’s classicism possesses the monumentality of a federal landmark.
The Trowbridge & Livingston–designed Hayden Planetarium opened that same year but was rendered in a contrasting art deco, gesturing toward a stylized, sleek future. In 1997, it was demolished to make room for the Rose Center for Earth and Space, designed by James Polshek and Todd Schliemann, which traded the old planetarium’s solid load-bearing walls for a giant sphere surrounded by glass curtains.
This is only the exterior. The inside of the museum, perhaps unsurprisingly, is even more chaotic. If there’s a correct path through the complex, it’s totally elusive.
On a Sunday not too long ago, I did my best to take in 4.5 billion years of history within the span of an afternoon. While I immediately recognized some individual dioramas and exhibits from childhood visits, trying to orient myself within the museum made me feel like a first-time visitor. Judging by recent Google reviews, the wayfinding challenges are not a disqualifying feature, evidenced by its mention in many otherwise glowing five-star ratings. There might even be an element of charm in its disorienting effect.
On this last visit, I entered on Central Park West into the Theodore Roosevelt Rotunda, on the second floor, a big, open space with dinosaurs and passages attributed to Teddy labeled “Youth” and “Manhood” on the walls over the ticket counters. After shuffling through the bag-checking and QR-scanning security line, I was confronted with three paths overflowing with multidirectional foot traffic. To the left, a series of exhibits ultimately led to a dead end. To the right, a hallway led to the Rose Center. Evading the tour groups, I headed straight ahead into the Akeley Hall of African Mammals.
Carl Akeley was a taxidermist whose influence on the museum in the early twentieth century is hard to overstate. He was a friend of Roosevelt and traveled with him to Africa in 1910, where he killed one of the elephants currently on display in the hall. Expounding on the role of taxidermy in her 1984 essay “Teddy Bear Patriarchy,” Donna Haraway reads the dioramas of the hall not as perfect representations of nature, but as staged stories that ultimately reinforce patriarchy. What seems natural is ultimately a fiction: Animals killed on hunting expeditions are arranged in nuclear family units that don’t represent behavior in the wild, and animals with any perceived physical imperfections are rejected from inclusion. But these earliest collections are not the only parts of the complex that carry a trace of the times they were made under.
There are always two pasts at play at any point in the museum: the period in natural history being depicted and the moment of curation. Through the exhibits’ design—and often through their content—one can almost immediately tell when they were built. The ’50s styling of the Warburg Hall of New York State Environment hasn’t changed much since its opening in 1951; some of the outdated outlooks on conservation are written in the typography of the time; and the Y2K look of the Hall of Biodiversity (a personal favorite) still includes the same low-quality videos on the wall screens warning of species extinction. As a tour of modern design, the dramatic variety is fun, but as a statement on science, the whiplash between varying tones and messages from room to room can be dizzying.
Ask people what they think of the museum, and they’ll invariably reach for an affective description rather than a physical one: memories of childhood visits, long conversations through meandering halls with past lovers, the theatrical impact of a single diorama, or an uncomfortable feeling about a problematic depiction.
The museum’s mission is almost impossibly ambitious. How can one building, burdened by financial and spatial limitations and the full weight of past curatorial decisions, display even a fraction of what’s known about natural history? Additions and renovations are added not at the pace of new discoveries, but at the speed of philanthropic whims, through contributions that often come with strings attached. The parts of the museum’s collections sourced from big-game hunting trips or composed of sacred or funerary objects would probably be considered unethical if acquired today.
As architectural styles fall in and out of fashion, so do the ideas they seek to represent. In the case of a physical institution, the impossibility of planning for all contingencies leaves the visible path of this cumulative progression in the structure itself.
Theodore Roosevelt’s connection to the museum in particular has recently come under scrutiny. After a prolonged debate, the statue of the president on a horse flanked by two shirtless men—one Native American, one African—was removed in 2022 (with plans to relocate it to the Teddy Roosevelt Presidential Library, in North Dakota). His namesake wing now houses a diorama depicting the founding of New York City, annotated to call out numerous problematic elements: the portrayal of Lenape women as only subservient, the symbolic placement of Pieter Stuyvesant in a position of power, inaccurate clothing, etc.
Dealing with the weight of the past has also been a passive exercise for the museum. In the way the museum has developed, exhibits are as aesthetically dated as they are dated by content, abandoning previous aspirations within mere decades. The museum itself is visibly decaying at the moldings and ceilings; during my visit, a metal informational plaque in the Stout Hall of Asian Peoples was nearly illegible from wear.
The soon-to-open Studio Gang–designed Gilder Center has been presented as an update to some of these more passé elements. Practically, it’ll function as a connection across the west side of the complex, eliminating dead ends. Architecturally, in a dramatic rebuke of dark, winding exhibits, the open atrium formed from dramatically sloping shotcrete walls will be illuminated by natural light. Housed within will be new exhibits, a new library, classrooms, and views into previously hidden working and collection spaces. In the press releases, repeated in media coverage so far, this is all meant to be in service of science literacy and to encourage trust in science in a posttruth era, with global warming and the pandemic specifically cited.
Taking the long view of the museum, it’s easy to see how the Gilder Center will one day look dated, too, but that might not be a bad thing. The sterility of the white walls and the organic forms are very of the moment, but it’s an idealized version of science in a way that’s not dissimilar from the aspirations of previous moments in the museum. It’s unlikely that any visitor will see the new addition without also passing through the Roosevelt Memorial, the Akeley Hall, or the Hall of Biodiversity. They’ll also walk around the now even more incongruous facade, as yet another architectural style is added to the collection displayed at the museum’s perimeter. The messiness of the museum as a whole is perhaps the most accurate symbol of our constantly evolving ideas about the world, more contentious and rifer with conflict than any individual moment could suggest. One day, the Gilder Center will just be another stratum in the museum’s history.
Michael Nicholas is an urban planner and an editor at Failed Architecture. As a child, he was afraid of the high ceilings of the AMNH’s atria.