“What’s it like to work at the AMNH?” The Museum and the Museum

As I approach the end of my second month at the AMNH, I am often asked by friends and family, “So, what’s it like to work at the Museum?” And what I tell them goes something like this:

I work on the fourth floor, around the corner from the Tyrannosaurus Rex. I come to work an hour before the museum opens, so every day – as I walk from the staff cafeteria past the dinosaurs to my office, munching on my hot buttered bagel – the halls are empty.

I have a private daily breakfast with prehistoric beasts.

When I have a meeting with someone in paleontology, I swipe my access card and walk up the stairs from the fourth floor to the fifth  (which mysteriously sandwiches an additional floor, some half-level out of Being John Malkovitch), walk past Microscopy and Inverterbrates and then (a block or so later out in the real world) down a short hall. I begin that hall on the fifth floor. By the end, however, I now stand on the 8th. It turns out the AMNH is like Hogwarts from Harry Potter, the floors and hallways shifting unseen as you pass through them.

The magic, of course, comes from the carefully crafted illusion, best seen from the outside, that the museum is one structure when, in actuality, it is 25 interconnected buildings. And the trick is realizing that these separate buildings are not like lego blocks but, rather, composed from different brands, each with their own shape and design.

For example, check out this staff elevator, which has both a front and a rear door:

Anywhere else, the fifth floor on one side would match the fifth floor on the other side. Nope. The building on one side has floors shorter than the floors on the other. So at a certain point the numbers are no longer in alignment, as if the two buildings were moving at different speeds. So how do you know in advance which floors are higher or lower than any other?

You don’t. You learn from experience, or not at all. That’s what it’s like to work at the museum, or at least to move through it. There is no map.

Speaking of maps, it is hardly a coincidence that amongst all of the museum’s mobile apps, the most significant feature is the Explorer’s Google Maps-like directional, offering a customized step by step guide between any two points in the museum. Visitors need such support to navigate this place. Even though I have been coming to the museum since I was a little kid, I was shocked to learn when I started the job that I had been missing an entire floor (the third; go figure).

So if it’s hard for visitors who DO have a map, imagine what it’s like for the rest of us, working off the map. Look at the image below. I work in negative space!

X marks the spot of my desk. I work in the negative space!

What most often ran through my mind last month was China Miéville‘s wondrous novel The City and The City. The book is about two cities that OCCUPY THE SAME PLACE. The residents of each city, by cultural practice and law, actively ignore the existence of the other. At times the space in one city is isolated from the other, with its own separate areas off limits to the other, while at other times their spaces overlapped, “cross-hatched” as it were, where pedestrians active ignore the existence of the other. This crime novel focuses on a murder in which the victim is said to have believed a third city existed, hidden between the two.

It is a crazy idea, but works in the novel. This unusual allegory turned out, however, to be a perfect concept for helping me get my mind around the AMNH, especially in those first few days, as the AMNH IS in actuality the Museum and the Museum. One museum is the public museum visitors see on a map. The museum that is my office, however, is a collection of education offices scattered in at least four different places around the building(s). Sometimes the education offices are isolated from the public exhibits, located behind them or misdirecting the public behind doors at ends of halls with no signage. Other times, as I walk from one set of offices to another, our spaces overlap, the visitors with one agenda, me with another, the two intersecting when I’m stopped in my path with the perennial, “Where’s the closest bathroom?” (They, of course, refer to the bathroom in THEIR museum, which is down halls nearly two blocks away, not the bathroom in My museum, which is just a few feet behind me.)

This too is an illusion. The AMNH is not divided into the public exhibits (and those who support them) and the education department. There are also the 200 or so scientists. The Museum and The Museum and the Museum. Oh, there is also the library. And the graduate school. I can go on and on, as the Museum does, but I think I have made my point.

There is no map to these “other” museums. They are at one time different facets of the AMNH and, together, the real museum.

Determining the route and location for me to any office is still a mental challenge. And every day, just getting to my desk is an adventure, one which I hope never gets any easier.

A map showing the years and build order of AMNH’s first 19 buildings.

About Barry

The Associate Director For Digital Learning, Youth Initiatives at the American Museum of Natural History.
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