In one of his more fantastical moments, the novelist Jorge Luis Borges
imagined an ancient Chinese encyclopedia that presented a method for ordering
all the world's animals. Any creature, instead of belonging to groups like
"insects" or "amphibians," could be classified in one of these categories: 1)
belonging to the emperor, 2) embalmed, 3) tame, 4) suckling pigs, 5) sirens,
6) fabulous, 7) stray dogs, 8) included in the present classification, 9)
frenzied, 10) innumerable, 11) drawn with a very fine camel-hair brush, 12) et
cetera, 13) having just broken the water pitcher and 14) that from a long way
off look like flies.
makes a stop at the AMNH:
Evolutionary thinking, which is now becoming even more sophisticated, has
led to another series of revisions. Mr. Asma shows, for example, that at the
American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan, the Hall of Vertebrate
Origins, which opened in 1996, is strictly organized on a "cladistic"
principle of taxonomy: animals are grouped not by shared surface
characteristics and functions, but by shared ancestors. The hall is a
demonstration of evolution and historical change. The museum's literature
makes it clear that this ordering is not immutable but is itself "subject to
change and refinement."
and ends distressingly:
Judging from some of the descriptions in recent books, the new natural
history museum has tended to become less a temple celebrating human mastery
than a spectacle that humans must gaze at as insignificant interlopers. Is it
possible that this has encouraged the new emphasis on "edutainment," with the
proliferation of gift shops and cafeterias and interactive exhibits? These
provide the only habitats where a visitor can feel any power or
self-importance in a museum-universe stripped of divinity and
anthropocentricity. At best, the outcome is humility; at worst, it is self-
Yup, self-loathing will send you shopping, or at least to lunch.