Who Knows What Secrets Lurk in Museum's Heart?

Times Staff Writer

If the weird neighbor down the street decided to go on vacation and leave you the keys to the creaky manse so you could water the plants, you'd naturally take the liberty of snooping around just a little.

When you came upon a room where 90,000 stuffed birds lay on their backs in drawers, you might have second thoughts about being so nosy. But by then it would be too late to stop and you would eventually discover the pickled tadpoles in the pantry, the monkey pelt in the refrigerator.

Peeking Behind the Scenes

Visitors to the Natural History Museum's 18th annual members-only open house last week stumbled onto those very sights as they took advantage of the chance to wander at will in crannies and closets normally off-limits to the public.

The idea was to give guests a peek into those aspects of a museum that are often overlooked. A museum spokesperson said only 3% to 4% of the museum's holdings are on view at any given time and that public display is just one component of a list of museum responsibilities, which include preserving, studying and collecting specimens.

When the doors were unlocked at 6 p.m., about 3,000 museum members made beelines for the areas marked in gray on the museum map, sections where the public rarely goes. Pushing past signs that read "Not Open to the Public," visitors entered a maze that seemed to lead to a new smell and sight around every corner.

A Roly-Poly's Pal

Al Pajak, 17, of Buena Park opened a wooden door with a window of opaque dimpled glass and found himself in the private lair of a pill bug researcher. There on the bulletin board, next to snapshots of sunburned human pals on vacation, the scientist had pinned a grotesque enlargement of a terrestrial isopod, commonly known as a roly-poly bug. Pajak learned that there are about 4,000 marine forms of the critter in existence. He got to study one of these underwater specimens through a microscope, and to chat with a scientist who studies them.

Pajak said he was hoping that by starting on the fourth floor and eschewing the crowded elevators in favor of the stairs, he would be able to work his way down through all the verboten areas of the museum in the allotted four hours.

A student of vertebrate paleontology, the blissful Pajak said, "I love to go through the cabinets and storage bins. I learn more from those than I can from the museum exhibits."

Ornithology collection manager Garrett Kimball agreed that the museum's true riches are contained in those areas normally hidden from view. "The potential for a museum is far beyond what's on public display," he said. "It's analogous to a library--every book is full of information and every one of these specimens is full of potential information for people who know how to use them."

A little girl visiting Kimball's department stared solemnly at what amounted to a bird morgue, with thousands of specimens arranged in open drawers according to color and type. The young visitor asked Kimball why they needed to kill so many birds for the collection.

Kimball explained that the numbers are necessary to ensure that the museum's sample fairly represents the variety within each species. He told the child that if a space creature were to come to Earth hunting humans to stock an extraterrestrial museum, he might have to bag a small girl, an old man and a few specimens in between in order to create an exhibit that would show what a human being looks like.

Kimball passed around to visitors a bird collected at the tip of Baja California on Oct. 14, 1923. The specimen felt like cardboard but had good color and shape, considering its age. "Good heavens," a woman said. "I would have thought he would have kind of fallen apart years ago."

Kimball explained that the pungent smell some guests had remarked upon was mothballs, which are used liberally in the cabinets to keep bugs away from the specimens. Without exposure to light or pests, the bird specimens should last forever, he said.

As well as discovering the museum's "skeletons in the closet," as the invitation put it, guests had a chance to observe curators in their native habitat. Accustomed to toiling in solitude, some of the curators appeared to be uneasy at the sight of strangers poking through their treasures.

Of Bugs and Men

Charles Hogue, curator of entomology, was one who didn't mind the invasion. "I'm interested in the influence of insects on human culture," he said. This was Hogue's chance to study bugs and people together.

Hogue pretended to putter in his office, waiting for a visitor to stray into his trap. When a victim approached, he nudged a toy wind-up stag beetle named Roger, and the beast, the size of a kitten, waddled across the floor toward the intruder. "Lots of children are scared to death of anything that crawls, I suspect because of their parents," Hogue said. "This (meeting Roger) might be a good way to get kids to not be so afraid of insects."

A boy knelt on the floor next to the mechanical bug and proclaimed: "It's not real!"

"Did you see those big beetles over there (on display)?" Hogue asked. "Don't they look just like this one?"

"He's still not real," the boy insisted.

As he labored to repair Roger's dislocated wing, Hogue said he had assembled a body of literature dealing with insects and people. Many of the books feature anthropomorphized insects, a class of characters for which he has coined the term bugfolk. The shelves in Hogue's office hold a collection of such volumes, including "Killer Flies" and "The Caterpillar Cop."

A Busy Space

Visitors to the orderly exhibits downstairs rarely realize that people like Hogue spend their days pursuing esoteric interests on the museum's upper floors. One has only to disembark the elevator on a working floor and dodge a gurney full of big bones wheeled by a technician with hammer in hand, to understand that the off-limits areas are indeed alive with activity.

And, as is the case in any lively place, these back rooms are not always tidy.

On an unlit patio, a visitor found these items, which appeared to have been dumped in no particular order: a jumble of enormous bones that looked like Universal Studios props, dozens of 55-gallon drums labled "fishes," pickled creatures--some floating one to a jar, others as crowded as apartment dwellers--and a sign that read: "The animals are shy and must not be climbed on."

Those willing to go still deeper into the labyrinth discovered dead-end halls with peeling paint, a room where animal carcasses are stripped of non-essentials in preparation for display, a freezer where curators had stored the skins of a jaguar, a tiger and a sloth bear, a shelf full of six-foot warriors' spears and shamans' wands, and half-doors that opened into the mysterious underbelly of the museum.

When the secret corridors were resealed at 10 p.m., many guests were possibly relieved to pour back into the well-lit and predictable areas of the museum--until they are given the keys to the house again next year.

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