The museum is an important part of the New York Faustian pact: if you can take the city’s burnt pretzel smell and the realty brokers, the $7 vegetables and the police arresting you by quota, in return you get this astonishing cavalcade of meteorites, orangutans, dioramas, son et lumiere displays, gigantic and mostly-real dinosaur skeletons, sapphires, bugs, butterfly snowglobes, interplanetary displays, giant ground sloths, a lifesize fiberglass whale… it’s regression therapy. You’ll be a kid again, you’ll stretch your eyes at all the awe. This place dispenses it. It is, in the old sense, awe-full. It’s vast. Give it a full day. Come early. Bring money. If you have kids, forget the sitter and instead pack them off to a Night at the Museum slumber party ($129), and head out to sexy dinner à deux.
The museum is so much a part of the fabric of New York Life that a comparison with its counterpart in London reveals a lot about how the city actually works. Both London and New York collections moved into their new, remarkably similar buildings in the 1870s—neo-classical, built on a grand scale, and shot through with civic aspiration. Over the ensuing 140 years both have become world-class institutions. They differ in that, while the London museum is free and funded by its government, the New York one depends entirely on the private sector. Some of it is entrance fees, but mostly it’s philanthropy.
Private philanthropy has been at the heart of New York culture for a century, whereas it’s barely alive in London. Partly this is due to the huge disparities in wealth here, but mostly it’s because of the 501(c)(3) tax code. This—basically—allows Americans to give money away to charities which they’d have to have paid in taxes anyway. And who would refuse that? The effect of short-circuiting the democratic element like this is to favor popular causes (such as the Met) at the expense of unpopular ones (like prison reform). And few charities are as popular as the American Museum of Natural History. The annual gala is a starburst of fashion and celebrity, flushing out more boldface names than any event possibly bar the Oscars themselves. If you give enough money—estimates suggest $1m—you may be elected to the Museum’s Board of Trustees, which, along with those of the Met and the Public Library, make up the closest thing the city has to an aristocracy (the method for buying into the British aristocracy involved paying political parties, so this is clearly preferable). If you give even more than that, you might get a whole exhibition hall named after you, as Bernard Spitzer did, the property-developer father of former governor-john Eliot. The road to success in this city runs straight through the museum. It’s classic New York.