Tuesday, August 09, 2011

A few museums in New York

The rains that were threatened for today never materialised: instead, the skies were blue and clear. And at ground level and below, the air was thick and damp, cloying, even. I would say it isn't as polluted as Hong Kong but the fumes from all the trucks, construction sites, frozen yogurt shops, illegal DVD hawkers and dog walkers have to go somewhere.

Our morning started languidly, with a breakfast of a vaguely unsatisfactory mushroom omelette round the corner from the hotel, and then a wander down to 13th Street that was distracted by the Barnes & Noble on Union Square, where I gazed lovingly at e-readers and then bought paper books, failing to find the reworking of Superman as a Communist hero. What could be more American?

Eventually we found ourselves on our rendezvous point on 13th Street, then walked over to Soho for lunch at the packed Cafe Habana, where we waited a very long time for some very good food - for me, an exquisitely messy pair of portabello mushrooms, stuck together with guacamole in a burger bun. That provided the necessary energy to walk to the Crumpler clearance store and play with bags until I figured out how the velcro silencer worked on my old camera bag, at which point I left without buying anything (my wife wasn't so lucky and ended up with a new bag).

Having bought stuff, it was time to be a bit cultural, so we visited the Merchant's House Museum, a 19th-century house that's been preserved. It's fairly unassuming: from the outside, it's unclear that it's even open, but within it's quite well preserved. Well, half of it is; the rest is undergoing fairly major tidy up and repair work at the moment. We lucked out and caught the second half of a tour around the house, during which I discovered I'm far more obsessed by nightsoil than I'd previously realised, and that the small sample of Americans with us were all totally amazed by the idea of bells to summon servants in a house.

I don't know why that is. Perhaps they assume all humans have some personal identity and dignity, rather than being tools that should be summoned by the ringing of a bell. Honestly, these New-Worlders and their new-fangled ideas. In Hong Kong, domestic servants are still very much in evidence, and if we could install bells in the cupboards that we store them in, I'm sure we would.

After the museum, we went north to the Museum of Natural History. Being English, I have to be partisan and say that the Natural History Museum in London is better, because the exhibitions are better laid out, the building is more beautiful and it doesn't try to just jam in random anthropological or geological exhibits when there are other museums next door in Albertopolis. But the museum was better than I remember from 5 years ago; perhaps because we spent an hour in the frog exhibition, rather than doing the whole museum at warp speed.

I learned lots of interesting frog facts, from the multiplicity of ways frogs bear their young (once ripping off the lifecycle from Gremlins, apparently) to how poisonous treefrogs don't produce their own venom, but concentrate the poisons they get from things they eat (and so treefrogs fed in captivity on innocuous insects aren't so toxic), and how you get 7-pound goliath frogs, which are ruddy enormous and possibly the stuff of nightmare. Have there been any serious horror films about frogs yet? And how big could a frog become? Oh, questions, questions.

The gem and mineral area (also odd for a museum of natural history) is also much better than I remembered, whether that's because there were more exhibits (34 tons of meteorite iron for starters, and some beautiful silver ore from Norway that looks more like a miniature dragon) or just because it's laid out better. I was a bit annoyed that of all the metal exhibits, there's no radium or uranium, but then those probably aren't things you want to display to the public too much. Although it would be nice to know what they looked like.

Museum and frogs inspected, we headed back to Union Square, purchased more books, and had dinner at a fairly mediocre Japanese noodle restaurant, followed by pretty good gelato and ok-ish coffee. So NYC has provided 40% satisfaction on the food front today.

And now my legs hurt from all that walking. We got to Paragon Sports as well today, so I have a new GPS at last; tomorrow I get to see how weak my legs have become in the last 11 days...


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