The scales were hard under my fingers, but after 120 million years, I still expected to feel some of the softness of a live fish. And yet, here I was, in the presence of possibly the oldest thing I had ever touched, apart from the Earth which I walk upon. While children ran around, shouting in joy at the dinosaur skeletons, I took a moment to stop and think, this is where I am, and it is a small place indeed.
There is nothing that inspires such existential awe as a visit to the American Museum of Natural History. The first time I visited in 2011, I didn’t get enough time to go through all the exhibitions, so on a rainy New York day, I set out for three hours to explore the museum from top to bottom.
Inside the museum are skulls from humans 1.2 million years old. A rainforest. A soaring whale.
As a child I would have loved this museum, running from exhibit to exhibit, staring at the taxidermied animals, picking my favourites. As an adult, with knowledge of my own mortality, it became something else. A beautiful reminder to stop and wonder at the world. To turn the phone off and get out.
Display upon display of ancient and fantastic animals inspired me to write; giant mammoths, tiny camels, megadeer.
They’re not the stuff of fantasy novelists. These were once real animals, who evolved to the smaller and larger versions we know today. Too often as writers, we stick to the familiar tropes – dragons and horses – but there are so many more creatures to draw inspiration from.
In a darkened room reminiscent of a super-villain’s lair, the museum houses a wonderful collection of minerals and precious gemstones. Jade sculptures, precious opals, even glow-in-the-dark and radioactive rocks. The darkness of the stibnite below caught my eye, shards of black. In another room, the fragment of a meteor.
The last thing I looked at were the images curated from the moon missions by a landscape photographer. Peering into the void of space, looking at pictures of the earth from the moon, I wondered where I was on this small planet. We’re tiny. And yet we manage to do great things in the short time we have. I left, awestruck and inspired, too aware of my own small place in the world, into the grey New York afternoon.
Entry to the American Museum of Natural History is by donation – the recommendation is $22, which I think is more than fair for the quality and size of the exhibitions.