what’s a natural history museum to do?


To enter the National Museum of Natural History’s new Sant Ocean Hall, you must first pass the institution’s iconic African elephant. Here the taxidermied remains of an actual elephant — shot dead in the wild and given to the institution by a big-game hunter in 1954 — stand guard over the knowledge contained within.

But are the elephant’s days as a sentinel of natural science numbered? Behind it, in Ocean Hall, a large artificial whale floats above the 23,000 square feet of exhibition space devoted to the world’s seas. Phoenix — the Hall’s “ambassador,” as the museum repeatedly refers to it — is a full-size foam-and-mâché replica of an actual North Atlantic right whale. Whereas the rotunda’s anonymous bull elephant last raised his trunk over the African savanna more than half a century ago, the real Phoenix still swims in the waters off the East Coast. In fact she became a grandmother last year, and was spotted this summer in the Gulf of Maine.

So while the moribund elephant inspires awe of the species, the surrogate “Phoenix” encourages affection for the individual. Such is the ongoing transformation of the modern science institution. Indeed, throughout Ocean Hall are the latest signs of the natural history museum’s slow march from eclectic collections of stuffed and preserved specimens, to entities that must educate without boring, elucidate without offending, advocate without annoying.

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