Magazine article The New Yorker

HERE TODAY; FOSSIL DEPT. Series: 2/5

Magazine article The New Yorker

HERE TODAY; FOSSIL DEPT. Series: 2/5

Article excerpt

Not many people know this, but there was a plan, in the nineteen-fifties, to sheathe the American Museum of Natural History in aluminum--a city block putting on the foil, in the name of progress. Visitors to the neighborhood will note that this scheme did not get far. Still, change has come to the old museum over the years, as it does to all things. A spiffy planetarium, a bluer whale, a proliferation of gift shops: for better and for worse, science's curatorial preferences evolve, and wonderful enterprises and exhibits get moved aside, thrown out, covered up.

The latest casualty is an outfit called Micropaleontology Press, or Micro Press, which, in various incarnations, has been a tenant in the museum since 1942. It originated in the thirties, with the geologist and grant-application wizard Brooks Ellis, as a project to catalogue the fossilized remains of single-cell organisms, such as foraminifera, that live and, more significantly, die in the sea, accumulating on the ocean floor like dust. It is not a vast exaggeration to say that microfossils form the surface of the earth; the Great Pyramids and the White Cliffs of Dover, for example, are made up of trillions of them. For a time, the project was a beneficiary of the Works Progress Administration, employing about two hundred hard-luck illustrators, writers, typesetters, binders, and archivists to make and collate records of microorganisms. They produced, among other things, thousands of original, meticulous drawings--of lepidocyclina tournoveri, cristellaria latifrons, and so forth--whose marvellous forms summon to mind oysters, pinecones, and life on the planet Mongo. The museum granted Ellis's operation a sprawling space on the main floor, and pretty much left it alone, as it morphed into a self-supporting publishing enterprise, thriving on subscriptions and consulting fees from oil companies. (Microfossils are deadeye indicators of oil, and also, appropriately, of climate change.) It produced the bimonthly journal Micropaleontology and also annual updates of the catalogues. But in recent years, as the oil companies devised other prospecting techniques, and as the museum cultivated new endeavors, the micropaleontology department, which in fact was never a real department, moved downstairs to the basement and began to shrink, until it learned, last July, that it had to vacate its lair for good by the end of the year. …

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