Beloved imagination, what I most like in you is your unsparing quality.
In the depths of the Museum of Natural History in New York City, that mausoleum of theft, plunder, and death, stuffed with the dead bodies of ancestor creatures (some of them, also stuffed), an unattributed quote hangs on the wall: We have not inherited the earth from our ancestors, we are borrowing it from our grandchildren. Amidst the riotous cacophony of skeletons and preserved creatures, earth-hewn minerals and a veritable dossier of colonization on and off Planet Earth, preserved behind glass for the perusal of us in the future who teem through the meticulously-lit halls of the storied museum-castle complex, it’s easy for one’s eyes to glance right past these words on the search for some preserved, long-dead wonder. The model of a colossal blue whale, constructed from photographs of a whale whose body was found in South America in 1925, hangs over an aquatic tomb.
What care should one have for the video kiosks tucked into corners describing ocean conservation efforts, elephant habitat protection, the perils of the pollinators? For there is a butterfly house, heated to optimal degree for those fragile, colorful creatures from all around the world, upon whom no plant’s life cycle will depend. Logo-wearing security guards installed at the entry vestibules ensure no butterfly escapes into the cold labyrinth of the museum itself; here is a universe created for the butterflies and their visitors alone. The butterflies know no natural predators; they drop down on shoulders, surprisingly corporeal in the solidity of their living bodies. Beneath the leaves in the exactingly-designed gardens, the mechanically-irrigated soil provides a temporary final resting place for the shriveled carcasses of broken butterflies.
I do not know who cleans their corpses when the day ends.
In January of 2022, after years of efforts on the part of activists, a statue which stood sentinel for decades outside of the museum’s entryway was removed, a bronze casting of Theodore Roosevelt astride a horse, flanked by two walking figures, one depicting a Native American man and the other an African man. The sculptor James Earle Fraser said, “The two figures…are guides symbolizing the continents of Africa and America, and if you choose may stand for Roosevelt’s friendliness to all races.” Ah! Benevolence!
The internet suggests the unattributed quote I mentioned before may originate from a “Native American proverb,” or perhaps Ralph Waldo Emerson, or the Amish, or Oscar Wilde. The inability to account for a source is appropriate; museums are halls of categorization and dissection, atomization and labeling. Somewhere in this museum, we can visit the body of Lucy, the famed Australopithecus. We can press our grubby fingerprints against her glass coffin; oh! If only you could see, Lucy, what we have done with the world you borrowed from us. Would you be impressed by our collection of bones?
“No,” writes Aimé Césaire, “in the scales of knowledge all the museums in the world never weigh so much as one spark of human sympathy.”
When our breath fogs up the glass encasing Lucy’s unburied body, do we remember that her grave was robbed for the sake of our hunger? Do we look upon the familiar-shaped skeleton and consider the other things we shared with her: hunger, cold, loneliness? It is, of course, the similarity between us, the casting of our familiar bone structure, only in miniature, that draws us to her. Do I dare approach the imagination to empathize with her, to wonder where her people went, where her descendants are, to wonder if her feet hurt like mine, to wonder if she’s lonely here, amongst the living who walk amongst the dead without ceremony?
The problem isn’t the Museum of Natural History itself, not really. That one museum is an example, a fragment of the violent processes of destruction and production replicated across all the institutions that feed and reify the power structure of our world, as iconized in the bronze casting of Roosevelt riding above avatars of colonized continents, the colonized people. Let’s return to Césaire on museums:
…all things considered, it would have been better not to have needed them; that Europe would have done better to tolerate the non-European civilizations at its side, leaving them alive, dynamic and prosperous, whole and not mutilated; that it would have been better to let them develop and fulfill themselves than to present for our admiration, duly labelled, their dead and scattered parts; that anyway, the museum by itself is nothing; that it means nothing, that it can say nothing, when smug self-satisfaction rots the eyes, when a secret contempt for others withers the heart, when racism, admitted or not, dries up sympathy; that it means nothing if its only purpose is to feed the delights of vanity …
What is the purpose of ogling the tiny bones of a dead Australopithecus dug up by an American paleoanthropologist in Ethiopia? Why do we goggle, wide-eyed, the immense bones of the Tyrannosaurus rex taken from layers of earth in Montana? What is it we say when we see that terrifying jaw crammed full of immense, curving teeth? What does the crumpled wing of a butterfly carcass evoke within us? What is it we are impelled to feel when we see Lucy’s own tiny jawbone, bearing teeth not dissimilar from our own?
In Amharic, Lucy is called Dinikesh, which means you are marvelous.
For we may say wow when we see the T. rex or the taxidermied saber-toothed tigers frozen eternal in snarl, wow at the rainbow on the flapping papillon wings, wow when we stand under the belly of the beastly model whale (imagining the cords snapping, the whale crashing down onto the people below)—but if that wow doesn’t evoke in us the empathy to imagine that a better world would be one where this museum didn’t exist at all, that wow is an utterance of the vanity of the colonizer, the wow of hubris to name an ancestral skeleton whose life we know nothing of after a Beatles hit. Wow, look what we have contained. And beyond the doors of the museum, wow becomes an experience assimilated into ordinary life.
But what if this monumental pile of corpses—Lucy’s dead body, the T Rex’s dead body, the dead body of the little butterfly who sat in my hair—evoke in us the possibility of a world where the museum is dismantled? A world where the ancestors are restored to their graves, knowledge isn’t pinned up in marble halls, the butterflies habitats aren’t endangered by human works? The reality of the museum is a direct violence that exists in seeming contrast to its claims: The contradiction of writing an appeal to preserve the earth for the generations to come on the walls of a building bearing testament to the destruction of the past. As Andre Breton wrote, “Under the pretense of civilization, we have managed to banish…any kind of search for truth which is not in conformance with accepted practice.” (Breton, 2)
But the surreality of the museum is in the very contradiction the message graven on the wall conjures. “Surrealism, such as I conceive of it,” Breton says, “asserts our complete nonconformism clearly enough so there can be no question of translating it, at the trial of the real world, as evidence for the defense.” (Breton, 5) The removal of the equestrian Roosevelt monument was borne of the imagination of those who were willing to forge the dream state into the physical, rupturing the divide between fantasy and reality. Suzanne Césaire writes that surrealism “nourishes an impatient strength within us, endlessly reinforcing the massive army of refusals,” refusals to accept the real as permanent.
So I might, for a moment, entertain that the unattributed quote is a call from the very stone of the museum itself: the voice in the walls hewn of rock drawn from the quarries of Picton Island, a call which echoes to the core of my unconsciousness, forging a link between a dreamworld where I am not stealing from my grandchildren and the real world destroying their/our future. Herein lies the problem: I am here, now, in a stolen world that is continuously stealing from the future to feed the gaping maw of the present, a world that robs the graves of ancestors so we can say wow and press our grubby fingers to the plexiglass of a transparent tomb.
I cannot put the mountain back. But maybe I can be permanently attuned to the potential of the Marvelous: A sledgehammer to the walls of the museum, WOW, the whale crashing down from the ceiling and cracking on the marble floor below, shattering the glass of the taxidermies seal habitat. WOW busting open the guts of the butterfly habitat, serving up exotic feast for the grackles and grebes and –the word is decolonize, not un—(and the snow leopard in the Central Park Zoo, and the penguins, where do they go? I heard the poles are melting…). WOW a burial for Lucy, back home in Ethiopia—WOW at the marvel of the tragedy and scale and wonder of it all—WOW— can I imagine—imagine—imagine—
Breton, Andre. “Manifesto of Surrealism (1924).”
Césaire, Aime. Discourse on Colonialism. Monthly Review Press, 2000.
“What the sculptor said,” American Museum of Natural History. https://www.amnh.org/exhibitions/addressing-the-statue/artist-intent