Tuesday, February 15, 2011

the squid and the whale

When I was a kid, I thought this was just about the scariest thing I'd ever seen.

It's the squid and the whale exhibit in the Hall of Ocean Life at the American Museum of Natural History. Of course, back then it was kind of scary in there, not the well-lit wedding reception-ready hall it is today. The lighting in the hall was dim. The exhibits had a creepy expectant feel to them. And the squid and the whale exhibit was positively predatory in its effect. From a distance, it looked like nothing--maybe a dark, empty display case that they'd forgot to fill, or perhaps were renovating. You'd lean in closer for a look. And then, out of the sepulchral gloom, you'd see a giant eye, a tentacle, a row of teeth, all barely lit in an eerie navy blue, just as you'd expect in the deepest deep dark of the ocean. Suddenly you'd forget there was glass. It would feel like you were falling into the exhibit. Into the ocean. And then you'd run away in delicious terror, back to find you parents, who were calmly reading something incredibly boring, the the captions under the mollusk exhibit or something like that.

It's not like that anymore. The museum has been significantly renovated since I was a kid, and I do have to admit that most of it it looks beautiful. But something was lost in the renovation of the Hall of Ocean Life. Everything's just so obvious now. It's so bright. You can see everything. There's a cafe in there, so you can sip lattes and eat egg salad sandwiches under the whale. It's nice, but it's just not creepy anymore.

Look, I'm not Holden Caulfield, I'm not a proponent of things that are crappy and old just for the fact that they are crappy and old. Renovation is necessary. Change is usually good. But I can't scare myself at the whale exhibit anymore, and that was always the most fun part. And more importantly, I can't scare Cal at the whale exhibit anymore, which takes the fun out of everything.

Cal and I are taking a trip to New York this weekend. It's just to be a special trip, just he and I spending a long weekend in the greatest city on earth. (Unfortunately, Joe and Mack will be staying in Atlanta, taking care of each other, and I will miss them like stink.) Cal and I are staying with my parents. We're going to ride bikes in Central Park. We're going to eat out. We're going to see some folks. And we're going to the museum.

I don't know why I have this determination to recreate the indelible memories of my childhood for my kids, or even if these experiences will be ultimately meaningful for them in the long run, versus lost in the jumble of Things I Kind of Recall From When I Was Five. But I so remember that cold creeping dread of peering into that whale diorama, the snaking tentacles of that giant squid which, under that dim light, you could almost convince yourself were moving--that even in this latter-day bright-lighted, sanitized version, I can't wait to show him.

(Above: Joe and Cal, waiting for the C train, March 2008.)


  1. I love that museum. I remember the creepy times, but didn't have the same attachment as you, so I generally enjoy the "upgrades". I think I'll go to hawaii this weekend and surprise my sister who lives there. Hope the weather permits your mommy-son bike ride! Have a great time!

  2. christine9:58 PM

    welcome back!
    was just in central park a few days ago -- weekend mornings are much safer now due to the NYPD's crackdown on red-light-running-lance-armstrong-wannabes. the pond's still frozen over, saw plenty of little ones running around on the ice (close to the bank, of course). if you can wrangle a safety rope somewhere, i'm sure cal would enjoy the experience. :)

  3. They got rid of the blue whale???? NOOOOOO!!!!!

  4. I feel *exactly* the same about the squid/whale exhibit - it really used to feel as though you were in the black depths of the ocean, starting into nothingness, and then all of a sudden, you realized there were two huge monsters looming out! So creepy! Now it's lit so brightly that the plastic-yness is obvious - definitely not as fun :(

  5. I’ve never been to the museum of natural history (the shame...) and I’ve living in the tri-state area for the past 18 years minus the 4 year stint in upstate NY for college. It’s a wrong I must correct.

    Anyway, I know a guy that worked on the whale. He was one of the many ‘kids’ (totally not a kid now, lol) that worked on some of the ‘boring’ stuff.

  6. I used to be so scared of the damn giant whale that was hanging there. I was sure it would fall on me, I literally had nightmares. It wasn't until about a year or two ago that I could walk under it. I think you are right: they renovated and its clear that thing is not going to fall. now I find the shark about to eat the turtle scary and the walruses fairly surreal.

  7. Alison K.7:15 AM

    As many improvements as they've made, the squid and whale are still just about as creepy as ever. They're my 5-year-old's favorite, and he goes tearing across the hall to see them. But I hang back, reluctant to go over, and when I get there, I get that cold thrill down my spine. Every time. It's purely scary. Cal's gonna love it.

  8. Anonymous10:28 AM

    I'm so glad that many of the museums are old. The old architecture definitely enhances the experience, as do the shadows that are a big part of it. Plus the decor definitely speaks of the importance of the subject matter. Not so in the newer places.

    Kinda like the old courthouses. The new ones do not do justice to Justice like the old places.

  9. Anonymous10:30 AM

    Have fun!

    Is there a limit to the number of pizzas and bagels you can carry onto a plane?

  10. Anonymous11:48 AM

    All I can say is holy crap. I went to the museum the first time after the renovation and I thought it was incredibly creepy. I cannot even imagine what it must have been like before.

  11. Sad, but the husband and I have lived on Long Island for 8 months now (thanks to his residency). Yet, we've been slacking on the whole actually seeing the city thing thanks to the whole "broke ass intern" thing.

    Maybe we'll see more in 2nd, 3rd, or 4th year?

    Btw, that first picture is totally creepy.

  12. Anonymous8:26 PM

    Question -- does Cal still have memories of when he lived in NYC?

  13. Anonymous1:21 PM

    Growing up, my parents would take us to the museum of natural history almost every month (and then to ollie's to have their beef noodle soup, mmm). that squid-whale thing really scared me beyond belief, but my favorite was the hall of human evolution and how it then led to those meteors that landed on a woman's car. have a great time this weekend!

  14. Is THAT what the movie was named for??

  15. I think Cal kind of remembers living in New York, but also, not really. It's hard to tell if he has actual memories of his life there (we moved a few weeks before he turned three) or if he just remembers the people and has seen pictures and has just created some kind of memory pastiche. That makes me kind of sad, actually. Oh well, more room for new monitors, I guess.