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Anatomy of an American Museum

Dinosaurs in the Attic: An Excursion into the American Museum of Natural History. Douglas J. Preston. St. Martin's Press, New York, 1986. 244 pp., illus. $18.95. To paraphrase Robert Hutchins, whenever the urge to write an institutional history arises, it is best to let the urge pass. Dinosaurs in the Attic is the exception to the dreary litany of the past which characterizes most institutional histories. Here is a thrilling "Excursion into the American Museum of Natural History." The book is a

By | February 9, 1987

Dinosaurs in the Attic: An Excursion into the American Museum of Natural History. Douglas J. Preston. St. Martin's Press, New York, 1986. 244 pp., illus. $18.95.
To paraphrase Robert Hutchins, whenever the urge to write an institutional history arises, it is best to let the urge pass. Dinosaurs in the Attic is the exception to the dreary litany of the past which characterizes most institutional histories.

Here is a thrilling "Excursion into the American Museum of Natural History." The book is a series of enthralling vignettes about scientific adventurers who have gone everywhere during the last 100 years discovering the natural and cultural patterns of our world. These are driven people who have always wanted to know more and who as "systematists" have laid the foundation for much of modern science. This book proves that people not structures make a great institution. What the book does not do, however, is give a compelling sense of institutional direction for the future. True, important individual work continues. But have great museums of natural history become institutionalized "dinosaurs in the attic"? Are they becoming extinct because of cellular and molecular biology and television nature series? Is this a time for nostalgic reminiscence or invigorating vision? Will vast natural history collections be as vital to tomorrow's research infrastructure as supercomputers? Will natural history museums conduct significant research on biological and cultural diversity? Can exhibits be a forum for people of all ages and backgrounds to learn about ecologies and the evolutionary process?

Yes, if natural history museums are peopled by profoundly curious and creative individuals like those who made the American Museum of Natural History a scientific pioneer of consequence.

Boyd is president of the Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago, IL 60605.
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