the other museum


A natural history museum is really two museums, and when you’re in one of them, you can hardly imagine the other. I don’t know how many times I’ve wandered around the halls of the American Museum of Natural History, among the armored fish and the stegosaurs. But it wasn’t until I was a 26-year-old science writer that I had the chance to pass through to the other side. I wanted to learn about pterosaurs, those stork-faced, bat-bodied reptiles that soared for 150 million years. I found out about a Brazilian man named Alexander Kellner who was getting his Ph.D. at the museum, studying new fossils of pterosaurs from the Santana Formation. Kellner invited me to the museum, to take a look at the bones and talk about his ideas about what pterosaurs had actually been like in life. I followed his directions and came to the Grand Gallery. I waited by the Great Canoe, and eventually a gangly paleontologist emerged from the acoustic fog of school groups on field trips. He led me through exhibit halls, and then, between two dioramas, he stopped. At first I thought he was lost in thought, and then maybe that he had forgotten something. There was no reason, after all, to stop by a dim wall between a pair of displays. But then I heard keys ringing in Kellner’s hand. He slipped one into an invisible lock, and the wall swung open. We slid through and Kellner locked the door behind us. I was in the other museum.

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