July 3, 1998
Essayist Roger Rosenblatt considers the new addition to the Natural History Museum in New York.
ROGER ROSENBLATT: Apart from showing beauty and intelligence, the new Hall of Biodiversity at the American Museum of Natural History is also subversive. It stands like a fifth column at the center of ambitious Manhattan and is a counterweight to all the individual appetites that make up America's symbolic island.
The Hall of Biodiversity carries a message antithetical to western capitalism in its diorama of a portion of the central African rain forest, in its assemblage of over a thousand examples of species mounted along a hundred foot wall like all of biology's general store, in its electronic bio bulletin board that gives up to date news of the earth, such as El Nino.
The Hall of Biodiversity states clearly that rampant individualistic actions made by the dominant species, us, will destroy the earth in a sixth extinction. In short, we must learn to live with one another or die. If this idea seems an irritating whine out of a 1960's sensibility, it is because the word "biodiversity" came along at the same time as similar sounding and meaningless notions like multiculturalism.
But there is nothing politically correct about biodiversity. It is merely correct. The structure of living things depends on careful cooperation. In the old hierarchical model, human beings were at the top of the chart, and, in fact, we remain there in the sense that the future of the chart is in our hands. The survival of imperiled species is up to us. When we walk through the hall of biodiversity and see the lovely intricacies of which the earth is made, we begin to grasp how great is the assignment.
Gratification is the supreme deity in the West. It must be so, or we would not build shopping malls. On any morning on any night see all Americanists move deftly through the world of appetites that he himself has created, peering at this and that, buying this and that, and most of all, yearning for this and that. The substance of western capitalism, after all, is not gained but the desire to gain, and the engine, the driving force of western capitalism, is the magnificent hue and the magnificent need, the solitary, restless individual who, though no longer dress like a cowboy, still swaggers onto the prairie of things to consume in search of individual gratification, always just a few aisles out of reach.
But here, in the Hall of Biodiversity, the cowboy is forced to park his six gun and to mingle with others. That's the beauty of this shopping mall. Nothing is for sale but existence. Nothing is to aspire to but existence. The purpose of museum exhibits is to teach a public something that it does not already know. And what the public who visits the Hall of Biodiversity doesn't know is that it is the exhibit.
When the human species enters here and joins all the other species in the room, the guilty party has arrived. Yet, the larger and more generous idea of the exhibit is that the guilty part is also the responsible party on whom everything else depends.
A species capable of creating a Hall of Biodiversity is also capable of acting on its purposes. To do this requires giving up lusty individualism, which is a subversive idea. But so is the rest of life. Look at it-hidden, nuance, delicate, subtle, a work of art so brilliantly subversive it could be gone before you know it. I'm Roger Rosenblatt.