time on exhibit

Each room at the Harvard Natural History Museum has a different smell, as if each collection era captured its own riff on musty odor. Stuffed animals stare blankly from their glass enclosures; a wooden phone booth on a stair landing still holds a real payphone, although it could easily be passed off as part of historical record.
Killing time on a rainy day, we wandered from one olfactory adventure to the next, admiring glass flowers from the 19th century, large crustaceans preserved in formaldehyde, meteorites that had plummeted to Earth decades ago. Soon we were in the adjacent Peabody Museum, where a tribute to Lewis and Clark gives way to a comprehensive collection of Native American dioramas and artifacts. In the dimly lit exhibit, authentic totem poles loom largely as a recording of tribal chants plays softly in the hall. I lingered over a diorama of Eskimos living in the snow, marveling at the igloos presented as half-way through construction. Outside in the square, protesters held signs that said “1492” and “murder,” and we had a vague sense that we had inadvertently marked Columbus Day.

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