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Mammals Get A Facelift At N.Y. History Museum


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Ever walk down your hall and think, hmmm, that Alaska brown bear could use a face lift. That bison, a dye job. Those painted purple mountains, where's the majesty? That's the situation that Ross MacPhee found himself in last year. Dr. MacPhee is the curator of the Hall of North American Mammals at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Maybe you've seen it in the film "Night at the Museum." Dr. MacPhee has spent much of the past 12 months supervising the restoration of the hall and its exhibits. Dr. MacPhee joins us in our studios. Thanks so much for being with us.

DR. ROSS MACPHEE: Hi, Scott. Same to you.

SIMON: What'd you do? I mean, how do you touch up a brown bear?

MACPHEE: With difficulty. Fortunately, it's not a living brown bear. Well, in a nutshell, the hall opened for the first time in the '40s, and the hall has aged, and in some respects, not very well. One of our biggest problems is that the lighting sources blasted a lot of UV, and UV is very harsh on hair color.

SIMON: May I ask, do the brown bears use Clairol?

MACPHEE: Perhaps if they had a choice, they would. I can't speak for them. But I think the question you're asking is how we did it.


MACPHEE: And we had all of these bleached mounts. Well, sure, you can look at steady skins and say we want exactly that pigmentation. But you have to add the pigment. So, our exhibitions people came up with this remarkable system with these pigments that you can dissolve in alcohol. You spray, the alcohol dissolves, and when it does so, it does not matt the hair. So, the hair looks beautiful. Do they look better than they would in nature? Well, you know, you can make the argument that they're perfect beyond perfect. But that's really not the point. What you want is this piece of theater, and the end result is beautiful. They all look like Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt in respect to their particular species.

SIMON: How many animals are we talking about?

MACPHEE: Well, we're talking about 43 separate dioramas, each of which focuses on a single species. Some of them have more than one and some of them have species that are only on the painted backdrop, if there was a point to be made about having several species in one ecological zone, for example.

SIMON: And how did you change the backdrops? 'Cause we're, as I don't have to tell you, we're living in a time of extraordinary special effects and CGI in the films and people get used to seeing very lifelike diorama depictions.

MACPHEE: So they do. But here is how I would phrase it: the background paintings were executed by some of the very best craftsmen and painters that were around in the '40s and '50s. They're exquisite. And what has happened to them is New York grime gets under the glass. That needed to be cleaned off, and some of the paintings have peeled a bit from their backdrops. They need to be reattached. But having done that, they're as good as human craft can make them now.

SIMON: I have to ask: you've seen the movie "Night at the Museum"?

MACPHEE: I have.

SIMON: So, does Teddy Roosevelt still come to life when it gets dark at the museum?

MACPHEE: People would like to think so, and this is part of the imagination that you need to have when you're visiting a natural history museum. To go back to your point about whether the dioramas are old hat, well, sure. In one way they certainly are. They represent a very old kind of technology. But I look at it a little bit differently. It's a 3-D theater in a way that TV cannot be. We have a beautiful diorama of bison herds from some indefinite time in the 19th century when they still had large herds, and that is so realistic that you think, if you just saw an image of it, that it had to have been taken yesterday somewhere in Wyoming.

SIMON: Ross MacPhee, curator of the Hall of North American Mammals at the American Museum of Natural History. Thanks so much for being with us.

MACPHEE: Most welcome.

SIMON: The newly restored Hall of North American Mammals opens to the public today. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.