At the Natural History Museum, New York City, 5 May 2000
by Nicholas Adams
The true rulers of the museum jungle are the packs of upper-middle class suburban young from Scarsdale, Greenwich, and White Plains. They arrive by the bus load. They are America's uberdogs in training, secure, self-confident, cossetted little treasures. They sweep through the halls, chattering, hanging on to one another for companionship, laughing uncontrollably at inaudible pieces of adolescent humor. 'No, no, no, it's really like this...' they say, trying to outdo one another. These are mating rituals. Will the girls notice?
They stop first at the museum store. Shopping is a very important activity. The girls love the cute stuffed monkeys with incredibly long arms. The boys stand and watch at first. The girls wrap the monkeys around them, wrap the long arms around their narrow waists. 'How do I look?' they ask one another, preening, looking in the mirror. 'How do I look?' as they compete with one another for the glass. 'He really loves me,' squeals one, wrapping the monkey's arms around her neck. She will make a good mother. Then the boys grab other stuffed animals, an alligator, a seal, and try and insinuate themselves into the game. Practice love rituals. Tail feathers erect and spread. How can they regain the girls' attention? Beautiful plumage? Will they be good providers? At maturity most will pair off to form families living apart from their own parents.
The group goes to the great Ocean Hall with its massive whale specimen hanging from the high ceiling and its wide open floor space. It is an important sight. The room is dark and cool, almost sepulchral, like an undersea world. The girls turn cart-wheels. Physical prowess. It's like swinging on vines. A boy steals a monkey from a girl and runs in wide circles, monkey outstretched: 'He's flying,' he calls out. Is he a leader? Loud and confident. Others join in the game. Then they ride the glassed-in elevators one floor up. And down again.
It is feeding time. They go downstairs (by another elevator) to the cafeteria. Everyone has money. They order hamburgers and cheeseburgers and french fried potatoes. Some of the girls have salads. There are milkshakes for some and Cokes for others. The boys probably weigh about 110 pounds each but will weigh around 200 pounds when fully grown. They will range over the entire earth. They eat very quickly. They occupy a small line of tables. It is their territory. They own it. No one can sit nearby. Especially not teachers. They blow bubbles into their drinks and almost choke with laughter. It is really fun. They check the other tables. They are alert to any possible limitation on their freedom. The teachers are on the other side of the room. Solitary bull-cows.
They leave the cafeteria. What to see? Where to be? Laughing again, the group rushes to the hall devoted to bio-diversity with its warnings about air pollution, over population, and the depletion of natural resources. This is the most advanced display in the museum with interactive learning centers. They crowd around a computer terminal but there are too many hands pushing too few screens and they move on to the rain forest exhibition - 'let's go in there,' they say - and accidentally set off an alarm when one of them reaches over the confining rail. It makes the whining sound of a car alarm and they recognise it as danger. One girl skitters off, scuffling quickly along the floor. 'I didn't do it,' she says, shaking her head. Fright and flight. The others jump away and pretend to be doing something else, giggling and putting on phony innocent faces. Teacher bull-cows appear, shaking their heads disapprovingly. Often they live alone or with another partner of the same sex. They sigh and raise their eyebrows and looking up at the ceiling to indicate that they are fed up with their student. They do that in order to gain sympathy from other bull-cows or solitary bulls who have been disturbed. It's not their fault.
The group moves on. They stop for a moment in the great exhibition hall with dioramas recessed in the wall and stuffed African animals. 'Oh wow!' All at once the animals look familiar to them. One looks like a teacher. 'That's Mrs. Silverman. No, no. That's Mrs. Silverman.' One reads a label. It's about the bongo. 'Rare and little studied, the bongo inhabits...' he starts. But it is too funny, really too funny. Bongos. What a name! And two of the boys put on a display of knee slapping. It really is funny and some of them are doubled up with laughter. And the giant forest hog is funny too.
It is time to go home. The bull-cow teachers arrive and herd the young towards their buses. But the animals remain at their posts, unmoving, fixed in their silent poses. They have witnessed these coltish mating rituals before. And the human young? The ride home will be really fun, too, and they will throw the monkeys around the bus and laugh.