William Zinsser is gone now. He was a writer and a Harvard professor, and once said that the saddest sentence he’d ever heard was, I wish I’d asked my mother about that.
Late in his long career, Zinsser became passionate about memoirs, and encouraged writers to put people’s stories on paper. Once we’re gone, we’re gone for good. And unless someone has taken the time to preserve the bits and pieces of who were, then our stories go with us.
It’s true. My grandfather died when I was just a kid, long before I realized how important it was to ask about his work at a Schuylkill County coal breaker. It’s too late to talk to him now, so it’s a good thing there are at least a half dozen coal mining museums within driving distance, places I can go to still hear his story.
This is what museums do. They're our storykeepers, stockpiling the answers to questions about our past – even the ones we haven’t thought yet to ask.
Eckley Miner’s Village, the No.9 Mine Museum, and the Anthracite Heritage Museum, just to name a few, held on to everything for me (and for every other “coal cracker” in the region) keeping it all safe until I finally came around to realizing that stories of my past dictate who I am in the present.
There are all kinds of stories worth keeping, far more than what our parents and grandparents can relate. There’s the story of how the hammer evolved into such a popular tool, or how roller skating became a favorite American pastime; there’s the story of kidney dialysis, of spicy mustard, and of the vacuum cleaner; there’s the story of the kazoo, the banana, the tow truck, and the sewers beneath the glittering streets of Paris.
What have those stories got in common? Somewhere in the world is a museum devoted to keeping each of them alive. Even the story of the moist towelette is securely kept and curated (oh, thank goodness) at a museum in East Lansing, Michigan.
Historical collections are important for sure, but I’m partial to natural history museums myself. If you ask me, that’s where all the really good stories are kept.
I remember going to the American Museum of Natural History in New York as a kid, looking up at a T-Rex and trying to imagine the fossilized bones covered in real muscle and skin, the mouth full of saliva and stink-breath. It gave me a humbling, goose-bumpy feeling unlike anything I’d ever felt before.
Dinosaurs still move me the same way. It was just last year when I stood in front of the T-Rex at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia and got those same goose-bumps. Of all the stories in all the world, that of the Tyrannosaur gets my vote for one of the best.
As an adult, I’ve come to appreciate natural history museums not just for what’s on display, but for what’s not. Worldwide, they hold 1.5 billion specimens, collected by thousands of naturalist explorers over hundreds of years.
Museums care for everything from whale skeletons to microscopic scraps of tissue, documenting each specimen’s history down to the smallest detail. Museum scientists painstakingly record massive amounts of data, by hand on special acid-free paper, with inks designed to last for hundreds of years. They go to great, meticulous lengths to save all of these wonderful stories, in as much detail and for as long as is humanly possible.
I once listened to a museum scientist talk for no less than forty five minutes about tape (tape!) and the best kinds to use for different museum applications. Not to be outdone, another museum professional once related the entire history of preserving things in liquid, starting back in the days of Ancient Greece and finishing off with a bottle of Everclear grain alcohol from the liquor store down the street.
Thanks to the internet, these people and the stories they hold are also incredibly accessible. I “lurk” on a few email list serves run by museum professionals, eavesdropping on their conversations. A lot of it revolves around (you guessed it) acid free paper, tape, and liquid preservatives, but there’s so much more.
Remember that movie, The Ghost and the Darkness? It featured Val Kilmer as an 1890s British Colonel determined to kill two lions that had taken to eating workers on an African railroad bridge project. The film was loosely based on a true story, and those lions did exist.
After being shot and killed (and serving as floor rugs for several years) the real lions’ remains were sold to the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, where their skins and bones reside to this day.
Only recently did scientists there begin to question whether the lions had been suffering from dental problems, which could explain their unusual man-eating habits.
The discovery made the rounds of the list serves, and I actually got to correspond with Dr. Bruce Patterson, the mammalogist who’d uncovered the find.
Q: Dr. Patterson, why did it take so long for anyone to realize the lions’ teeth were so bad?
A: Can you believe it? No one had ever thought to look before.
What a story!
That scenario of simple discovery plays out a hundred times a day, in museums all over the world. Scientists from every discipline ask new questions of old specimens using x-ray technology, CT scans, DNA extraction, and computer generated data analysis. They’re solving old puzzles, creating more mysteries, and adding new chapters to the story of life on earth.
Just recently, X-rays of over 800 ancient Egyptian cat mummies (gifts for the departed, akin to our funereal flowers and sympathy cards) revealed no cat parts whatsoever inside more than a third of the specimens.
Analysis of massive amounts of avian DNA done at Chicago’s Field Museum now show that (surprise!) falcons and parrots are more closely related to each other than to any other bird.
Even new species of mammals, birds, and dinosaurs are discovered with striking frequency--not from recently unearthed fossils, but from specimens that have languished in cabinets and drawers for decades. One museum even discovered a 6,500 year-old human skeleton that it didn’t know it had.
This is exactly how museums are supposed to work, preserving specimens well enough, and for long enough, for future scientists with advanced technologies to pick away at their secrets. The collections our natural history museums hold are like a colossal encyclopedia of life, so big that no one will ever be able to read through the whole thing.
Our own Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia houses one of the largest mollusk collections in the world, with over 10 million specimens. Got snail questions? They got answers, and they will for years to come.
For as important as this task of storykeeping is, it is also woefully underfunded. Limited budgets, staffing, and even storage space are common challenges for museums, large and small. Last week I stumbled on two separate newspaper articles, one lamenting budget cuts to London’s Royal Botanical Gardens, home to one of the world’s largest plant collections, the other a short piece on the financial struggles of a firefighting history museum in Shenandoah, Pennsylvania.
If we don’t support these storykeepers and make sure they stay afloat, someone else may. For natural history museums this isn’t always good news. Ideally, these institutions carry a message that is free of politics and special interests. Is total objectivity possible, say, when fossil fuel lobbyists are contributing tens of millions of dollars?
David Koch of Koch Industries, one of the biggest greenhouse gas producers in the U.S., sits on the board at both the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History and the American Museum of Natural History. Both institutions are adamant that no special interests influence the content of their displays or education materials.
But people are talking, and some academics are insisting Koch step down, lest any scientific establishment be tempted to alter their message on climate change, even if just slightly, in order to please the sponsors with the deepest pockets. Scientific integrity and authority are just too important.
A lack of funding isn’t the only modern day threat to our museums. Think about the terrorists who targeted visitors to a Tunisian art museum, or the ones who destroyed 3,000 year-old Iraqi stone figures with sledge hammers.
These are crimes against all humanity, on par with an assault on a maternity ward; our collective past should be valued and safeguarded just as well as our future.
Think of all that’s lost to natural disasters. Entire collections are destroyed by floods and insect pests; wax museums catch fire in London, and Corvette museums fall into sinkholes in Kentucky. Think of the statues, temples and monuments felled by the earthquake in Nepal. Stories lost, all of them. This is sad stuff, especially as we realize there’s not much we can do to prevent wars or natural disasters.
But there are ways we can help. Each one of us can choose the stories we feel are most important--whether it’s coal mining or firefighting, dinosaurs or moist towelettes. We can help the storykeepers. We can send them $1, or $10, or whatever we can afford.
We can support local museum fundraisers--buy a pizza or run a 5K. We can like them on facebook, volunteer a few hours of our time for them, or maybe even just write down all those things the storykeepers in our own families might have to share.
We can remember that their stories are our stories, that each one is valuable in some way, and that they’re all far too precious to ever be lost for good.