Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Museum Dreams: The Imaginary Academy

Please note: this is the first in a new series of posts dedicated to imaginary museum exhibits. Because the new California Academy of Sciences is so radically different from the old, and because the old Academy is so radically imprinted into my brain, and because there is such a radical absence of images of the old exhibits on the internet, my memories of the original museum are essentially now one of an imaginary place. It seems like a good place to start.

A floor map of the old Academy. Things on this map that no longer
 exist: Fish Roundabout, North American Bird Hall, Astronomy Hall,
Botany Annex, North American Mammal Hall, Fossil Hall, Hall of
Man, Anthropology Hall, Mineral Hall. Not pictured: Life Through 
Time, the dinosaur exhibit that I remember more clearly than my
father's face. You can tour it & other extinct exhibits here.
by MetaGrrrl (AttributionNoncommercial Some rights reserved)

The first line of my favorite Philip Roth novel is "She was so deeply imbedded in my consciousness that for the first year of school I seem to have believed that each of my teachers was my mother in disguise." This is how I feel about the Academy. I can't remember the faces of my parents; I know my father had a beard but as far as I'm concerned it never happened. What happened was the slick backs of the dolphin statues, the weary fins of the fish swimming the endless blue spiral in the luminous twilight of the tank. What happened was Foucault's Pendulum like a brass moon larger than my body looming this way and that way in the dark. What happened were the jewelbox terrariums in the walls of a white room full of the sound of falling water and alligators private and quiet in their pit. What happened was the eery green hologram of a triceratops' skull and velociraptors leaping from the foliage. My first bad dreams were of museums gone wrong, black shadows in the halls and every beloved exhibit gone nightmare. I thought the museum belonged to me. There has never been a temple like it.

Eventually we went somewhere no longer in walking distance and I forgot about it for almost twenty years. I heard they closed it down to keep the earthquakes out. I began to dream of it again. I was three thousand miles away and I dreamed of the exhibits somewhere temporary, a brown hall with the touch tank alive with starfish in a light like old beer, packing crates, a prickling joy. I wanted to go home. I wanted to fall on my knees in the first temple. There are gods you can only speak to when you stand somewhere that was holy as a child.

When the museum reopened I stood in line with my heart shaking in my stomach. Under the new green roof was a white gape of space. The emptiness was shaped like velociraptors and jewelbox terrariums. An absence in the space of a spiral tank shedding twilight, a room full of bones, glass boxes of gems. The alligators squirmed in a pit made of windows, uneasy, their underbellies showing. The room scooped clean as an eggshell and the pendulum swinging from the roof like an embarrassed yolk. I ran my tongue over the museum and felt nothing but hollows where teeth used to be. If you set down a piano in that smiling void the jangling would ring out through the space and hang there humming. The architect's name is Renzo Piano. I want to set him down there with clumsy hands and jangle the whereabouts of my ikons out of him. He will stand there humming and ask me why I want such dusty old gods anyway. Look, he says, these ones are so clean, so modern, so bright.

Afterwards I ran frantically to another kind of emptiness, the internet, and searched with shaking hands for proof I hadn't made it up. There were so few pictures I was sure I had invented it, my memories recalled dreams, the rooms of Jurassic forest and the space-dark of the planetarium illusions, imaginary collections of moon rocks and bones. Maybe there had never been such a museum. I turned up page after page of photos of shiny new artificial rainforest, the same sole T Rex skeleton over and over. Renzo Piano, you made the dinosaurs extinct -- again. I am trembling as I write this. It is like being told you made up your mother. It is like coming home to your father with his arm around a woman that you've never seen, a room full of blank stares when you demand to see the woman who goes back inside you so far she comes out the other side and it turns out you were inside her in the first place. Where did she go, you plead, what have you done with my mother. But this one is so beautiful, says your father, what do you need to remember her for?

Renzo Piano stands reverberating in his luminous galleries. Under his feet are the ruins of the temple I imagined coming home to. An extinct museum. There will be no case for its fossil. I will not remember it in glass boxes. In my imagination it is still alive, extravagant and musty, shattered by the avoidance of a shattering. How safe it is now, where no earthquake can uproot it from my bones.


  1. Well, I understand how you feel, but I do like the new one, and my kids love it. I love the rain forest and the living roof.

    I am (finally) about to start your book. I just finished the last of the ones I had to read before it this past Monday night.

    1. Listen, I'd much prefer everybody didn't hate it, because that would be so sad: an empty museum in all possible ways!

      And I can't wait for your feedback. Seriously. Thank you so much.


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