Last week I spent a few days in the Archives at the American Museum of Natural History, ferreting out photographs of old exhibition halls, phylogenetic trees, and other evolutionary educational arcana. One can practically walk decade-by-decade through the entire 20th century, getting a remarkable picture of the Museum and its visitors. Flipping through the vertical file drawers, I came upon this photo.
Never has the phrase “Mother Earth” seemed so appropriate.
The Museum began an effort to make its resources available to blind children somewhere in the opening decade of the century; I suspect that this initiative may have begun after the 1902 publication of Helen Keller’s autobiography. The Museum’s extraordinary scientific and artistic staff quickly began to assemble special teaching resources, focused on miniature clay models of some of its gargantuan fauna like dinosaurs, as well as stuffed specimens of small animals.
A 1914 issue of the American Museum Journal (the precursor to Natural History magazine) ends with a quote from a young blind man who had just encountered the Cape York meteorite, which is still on display in the Museum. He exclaimed: “And they took all that trouble to bring this big thing down here so we’d know there are such things.”
This morning, as I was setting down to write about this photograph, I received a call from a Canadian friend. “How about that!? First that lightning strike on the Vatican, now that Russian meteorite!” I hadn’t yet heard the news, but my reaction was a bit like that blind boy’s; I feel grateful that big things fall out of the sky, just to remind us that such things exist.
I will almost certainly in the future regret that I chose this image as the opening inspiration for this blog, for my thoughts are sure to run as erratically and unpredictably as a meteor(ite). Still, there is so much to contemplate and appreciate in this image of three early 20th century blind children of New York City embracing a relief model of the Earth. Their gestures are loving, tender, and respectful. One immediately wonders how, before encountering this child-sized globe, they may have formed their sense of what the earth and its surface looked like.
Then it strikes me: how have we who are blessed with sight, and fitted out with all the direct and remote sensing technology of the early 21st century, formed our sense of the earth? The American Museum of Natural History, where I found this photograph, and where it was originally taken, may be the Earth’s premier place to explore the living planet we call home. And yet. . .
This Mother Earth is an infinitely mysterious and wondrous place. I hope that in this corner of the site, I can regularly explore some of those mysteries with you, gentle reader.