The ideal museum has been dreamed of but has not yet been built. The ideal museum presents, in logical order, the entire story of the universe, the earth, and its inhabitants, together with their total relation to each other. Practical limitations prevent such a museum from becoming a reality but the goal is there.
The American Museum of Natural History works constantly toward that goal. A study of the Table of Contents of this General Guide will give the Museum visitor a key to the appreciationof its offerings in both a logical and a chronological order.
Astronomy mirrors the universe and states the theories of the earth's origin. The hardened rocks furnish the material of geology and the life-forms trapped in that rock are the objects of the paleontologist's search. From fossils we advance to forms that are familiar today - living creatures with backbones, insects, fishes, reptiles, birds, and mammals - all leading to the study of man himself.
With the growth of man from primitive savagery to what we call civilization, come changes in his relation to his surroundings. The first living thing was affected by its environment and affected it in turn. Man is no exception. He is one of a species of animals, among which he is no more necessary to the continuance of life than are the insects, the birds or the dinosaurs. His very existence in the future may depend on his understanding of the world in which he finds himself.
Man is still part of nature, although he controls much on earth. He is still subject to great basic laws and forces that restrict and restrain him within marked boundaries. A shift in climate from marine temperate to glacial cold could wipe out the traces of man and his works over a continent. A movement of the ocean bed could send a tidal wave to destroy coastal towns thousand of miles away.
Closer to man's fate than great earth changes are the difficulties he makes for himself through lack of understanding of the consequences of his acts. Because he is the only living organism with the powers of reason developed to a relatively high degree, he is able to engage in thought-processes and actions that create in him needs and desires that were not shared by his early ancestors. In the satisfaction of these needs and desires he cuts down whole forests for his industries. He mines the soil and uses up resources he cannot hope to replace. He waters the desert and reaps his harvest. He plows the plains and sows the dust bowls.
The Museum is aware of the urgency of the problems of soil, water, forest, mineral and wild life conservation and of the conservation of man himself. As you read through this general guide or walk through the Museum halls, note the theme expressed by those who represent the many departments of science and education. This idea is plain in their research, in their writings and in their exhibits for the public. The scientist-educator is concerned with the interpretation of nature rather than its mere presentation. The day of the thousand stuffed animals in one long case is gone. The scientist-educator knows that man must see nature as a whole since he must live as a whole being within its framework.
The American Museum of Natural History is one of the most wonderful places in the word. It houses the priceless objects of the earth, displayed in dramatic settings that amaze and delight all who come to see.
But it is more, much more, than a treasure trove of the rare, the exotic, the beautiful and the unusual. It is a great teacher that can tell man what has come before. What exists in the present, and what the future hold, depending on man's choice of direction. It would not be a great teacher if it did not indicate the best direction for him to take.
The Museum should be all things to all men. It should meet the needs of the housewife, the farmer, the industrialist, the college student, the child. Each must find, among its offerings, an answer to his questions, an understanding of daily living and an appreciation of his own place in a highly complex and interrelated world.
Unless museums work toward that objective, they fail in their obligation to mankind. Thi museum realizes that responsibility and asks you, the visitor, to pass judgment on the fruits of its labor and to take some of those fruits with you.
© 1958 by The American Museum of Natural History