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Old Porn Beneath The Floorboards New York 2003 - hidden treasures at the museum of natural history

The giant whale, the giant collections, the giant reputation—the American Museum of Natural History is not exactly a hidden treasure of New York. But after an enjoyable tour past the beautifully constructed exhibits, there are still a few little extras to look for, tucked in among the stuffed monkeys and wax plants.

The alert observer may notice, for example, two thumb-sized human heads hidden in the estuary display in the Hall of Ocean Life. Their size and color match the sea-squirts in the diorama, but they are obviously carefully sculpted portraits. Who put them there? And how did the enormous rain-forest tree trunk in the Hall of Biodiversity grow a human profile? Few visitors will notice the cartoon salamander tucked under the rocks in the upstairs section of the coral reef diorama, also in the Hall of Ocean Life. But someone carefully arranged the little intruder so that a child crouching underneath the handrail can make out its glowing yellow eyes peering out from the subterranean cave.

All of these illicit installations are very subtle, and hard for the casual visitor to locate. Some of the more mischievous pranks are, for all practical purposes, invisible (the proper angle to view the likeness of 'Planet of the Apes' Dr. Zaius hidden in the elephant dung is a secret passed from museum employee to employee). But finding any of them will tweak the entire museum experience.

Obviously no one can publicly claim responsibility, but it took a rare combination of access and talent to create these little double takes. Although some of the museum's models and some of the installation work are shopped out, most of the displays are made and installed by museum employees in the Exhibitions Department, many of whom have art careers outside of the museum as well. Sometimes, the temptation to make a more personal contribution to Natural History is too great to resist, and these side activities have been discreetly pursued for as long as the department has been in business.

Some of these additions are truly behind the scenes, such as the bed that used to be hidden behind the cliff in the mountain lion diorama. This off-the-record resting place may have a link to the stash of antique porn found underneath the floorboards in the Pacific Northwest Hall—with titles like Lonely Women: Sex With Animals, the books combine anthropology and zoology in ways that are not entirely out of tune with the larger museum. As Lonely Women (now in a private collection) says, "It was an astonishing and unparalleled . . . blend of art and science"—a good motto for the entire institution.

Truer to the affection that the museum inspires are the more sentimental touches. Who will not cherish the sea otter diorama even more knowing there is a time capsule hidden in his left foot? Or appreciate that out of all the purple algae painstakingly painted onto the rocks of the diving birds diorama, there is a perfect map of Catalina Island created by a homesick artist? The woman whose first name is painted into the swirling design of a large shell in the coral reef display has good reason to be proud of the subtle immortality she's been given.

These additions in no way destroy the illusion of real habitats—the close attention that the search requires only shows the incredible detail that goes into each exhibit. Everything great about New York is illustrated by the way generations of obsessive artisans have added a little subversion to their most beloved institution.

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