I have a young grandson who is fascinated by dinosaurs. I told him that if the rioting in New York City subsides I’d like to bring him to the American Museum of Natural History and let him see their dinosaur collection. And that got me thinking.
As I’ve mentioned previously a culture needs its myths. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the center of the American Myth was New York City. The rich and powerful built a modern-day Rome. Monumental buildings and cultural centers were built and artefacts and art works were collected from around the world. Even an enormous garden called Central Park was built in the center of the island, the most expensive real estate in the world, to provide an oasis from the concrete jungle that was built to house the business hub of a modern empire.
And from my point of view, the crown jewel was the American Museum of Natural History. The Museum was essentially free to residents of New York City. You were allowed to pay any amount you wanted for admission even a penny. Out in front was a larger-than-life sculpture of Teddy Roosevelt on a horse with African and Indian bearers escorting him on one of his expeditions. And inside was assembled a spectacular collection of natural history specimens that would fuel the imagination of anyone with a speck of imagination or curiosity.
There were magnificent dinosaur skeletons. Specimens of Tyrannosaurus rex, Allosaurus, Brontosaurus (now renamed Apatosaurus to satisfy the boring needs of pedagogy), Triceratops, Stegosaurus and Duck-billed dinosaurs called Edmontosaurus annectens are on display in spacious halls that allow the spectators to walk around these marvels. In addition to the dinosaurs there are skeletons of wooly mammoths, mastodons, wooly rhinoceros, giant ground sloths and other prehistoric mammals. There are also halls filled with the preserved bodies of mammals and birds from Africa, Asia and the Americas displayed in dioramas that used painted backgrounds and other materials like native vegetation to simulate the animals in their native habitat. Scenes of lions, rhinos, tigers and elephants provide remarkable vistas. Other halls include collections of gemstones, artefacts of aboriginal peoples from six continents and even a life size model of a blue whale are on display.
The museum with its heroic statue of Roosevelt is itself an artefact of a civilization at its peak of wealth, strength and confidence. Everything fits into the myth of American, and by extension, Western civilization expanding and illuminating the world. We gathered these specimens from the four corners of the Earth and we had studied and determined their meaning. We were the masters of the planet and we were confidently stepping into the future. There was even a planetarium that would teach our children of their place in the universe and our eventual explorations beyond Earth.
So, in 2021 the statue of Teddy Roosevelt was removed from the entrance of the museum. Soon I’m sure that roving bands of BLM rioters will loot the museum and sell the dinosaur bones to crack cocaine dealers as trophy crack pipes. Our myth about Teddy Roosevelt as the great white hunter is no different than Rome’s Julius Caesar and the Huns’ Atilla. Not everything in the myth is true but the myth fits the needs of a people. When you give up your myths it means you’ve given up on your reason to live as a people. That’s what we’re seeing.
Maybe I should bring my grandson to see the Beijing Museum of Natural History’s dinosaur collection. It would probably be safer and less depressing.