Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Two by Two in a Big Skidoo

The sign above the door says "Noah's Ark."

"Do you want me to turn those on for you?" asks another Allen County Museum docent, sneaking up behind me.  I try to politely decline, but she's not having any of that.  "It doesn't take hardly anything," she says, barreling past me into the small room. 

Four big wooden cabinets, one pressed against each wall, each with a brass plate carved with the name "J. E. Grosjean" screwed to the top.  No one seems to know much about Mr. Grosjean, or why he devoted so much time to collecting and stuffing the animals crammed into these display cases.  He was an undertaker, once, according to the newspaper clipping hanging next to the door.  An embalmer.  Perhaps he just loved dead things.

"We don't turn that one on anymore," says the docent, pointing to the display closest to the door.  It's full of stuffed birds, all with the same fixed glassy expression, tied to a ferris wheel.  "The feathers are too dry," she explains, "so the movement does too much damage.  But this one works just fine!"  And she pushes a button on the back side of the case marked "Special Albino Collection."

The old cabinet rumbles to life, and so do the animals inside.  Sort of.  A handful of birds spin on a turn-table, and the pink eyes of a white badger moves closer to the glass as the animal darts in and out of its burrow.  The docent makes sure I notice the little bird's nest at the bottom of the display.  "See how it opens?" I do.  "There are little baby birdies inside."  There are.  

(She calls it a nest.  It's actually a human skull, allegedly from Cuba.  I wonder if she knew that.)

After a minute of watching the animals jerk about inside their case, the docent cuts the power, and bustles over to the display titled "Noah's Ark."  "This one lasts about seven minutes," she says, hand disappearing behind the cabinet.  "I'll just turn it on, and you can watch," and she disappears as the motor gurgles to life.  

What happens is a display of first-rate 1901 electric technology, supplemented by a static-filled soundtrack added during a 1966 restoration.  The ark rests on a pile of dirt, twisted vermin carcasses, and snake skins, helpfully identified as "Showing Everything Dead and Destroyed After Deluge."  Little light bulbs flash, and the Voice in the Box pops and hisses the story of Noah and the Ark.  A little set of doors opens on the ark, and out flies a raven, up and up, disappearing behind hand-painted rain clouds.  More lights, more reedy thunder.  A second set of doors opens, and here comes the dove, twig already in beak.  It flies out to the far side of the display, then turns around and flies back into the ark, doors closing behind it.  The big doors of the ark open, and out come the survivors.  In the first row, pairs of carved human figures and stuffed toy animals, like elephants, horses, and lions.  The second row is real stuffed birds, walking two by two.  Together, they all march behind Mount Ararat, where a stone tablet carved with Bible verses swings away to reveal Noah and his family burning a sacrificial lamb.  One last round of flashing lights, and the crackling music tries desperately to sound inspirational, and the whole things hiccups to a stop.  That was weird.  That was wonderful. 

The last case isn't wired.  The card at the bottom of the display reads "This Case Contains Specimens Soon To Be Extinct."  The display was created little over a century ago, but the contents may surprise you.  A number of animals have gone extinct in that time, but more than half of the animals in this case are still around.  Certainly the Duck-Billed Platypus, of which there are two, mounted near the bottom and almost looking over their shoulders at visitors.  Neither is the African Hornbill, nor the Andean Condor, though the latter is still considered 'near threatened.'  Only the lone Ivory-Billed Woodpecker is critically threatened, though not officially extinct, so at least Mr. Grosjean got one right.  

A group of teenagers come in (with the docent, naturally), and since the room is barely big enough to hold just me, I make a hasty exit.  Though I can't help the feeling I'm being watched while I leave.

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