I have a membership at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. I’ve always squeezed my budget to be able to afford it as I love being able to go, enter through the member express lane, get my card scanned, and spend the day wandering the exhibits. My membership also grants me access to the DMNS library which is an amazing, amazing place. Reference books I’d never be able to walk out of a public library with have made it into my home for my perusal. I may have gone a little overboard the first time I used my library access but that’s a story for a different time.
I try to hit the special exhibits when they come through. The Genghis Khan exhibit was awesome, made more so because of the contortionist hired to perform on a little stage inside the exhibit. I also loved wending my way through the Pompeii exhibit. Again, there were actors hired to dress like ancient world characters and I had to restrain myself from asking probing questions to the woman playing an innkeeper. I’d read in one of my many history books that single women weren’t often proprietors, I wanted to mention, unless they dabbled in other, seedier forms of commerce: do you and your husband run this place together? Then I reminded myself that this was an actor and the question was borderline inappropriate. I listened politely as she made her spiel, admired the divets in the bar bowls would fit into, and went on my merry way. I could fact-check when I got home.
In the last room of the Pompeii exhibit, I found the molds taken of humans and animals found under the layers of pumice and ash. This was heartrending and I had to find a quiet corner to cry a little. Even though the remains of people and dogs were long gone, I could see agony burned into the lines their bodies left and the expressions of terror and pain as they died. It was a difficult room to get through but the exhibit was well worth attending. I felt like a different, softer person when I left.
I tell you all that to mention the Whale Exhibit recently at DMNS. I made it on the next to last day of the exhibit and dragged my mother and step-father with me. I’m glad I did as the parking garage was full. My step-father has handicap access and we found rockstar parking right in front of the member’s entrance. Without them, I wouldn’t have been able to see the exhibit. I half-jokingly told my parents they have to come with me from now on. When they’re tired and ready to sit down, I’ll set them up in the T-Rex cafe with pizza and books while I continue on my own. Half-joking…
The Whale exhibit was worth seeing but, I admit, I left with a bit of a meh feeling. Why? Because, in this respect, the exhibit was too sterile for me to completely enjoy it. I don’t feel the same way wandering through the Egyptian exhibit or the Gemological exhibit but I don’t spend a great deal of time in the wildlife dioramas and wasn’t transported by the Whale exhibit. I think that’s because I prefer the real thing. I love hiking and Colorado provides some of the best opportunities for getting out into nature and seeing actual, living, wildlife. Why stare at a stuffed eagle when I could get outside and perhaps see the real thing? I felt the same way at the whale exhibit.
Not that it wasn’t worth seeing. There were interesting specimens in the exhibit and, again, I had to restrain myself from adding fun facts the exhibit failed to mention. For instance, there was a computer generated sperm whale hunting a giant squid. The images showed the sperm whale using echolocation and I had to squelch the impulse to share that, in a documentary I watched, divers who’ve encountered sperm whales say experiencing those sound waves feel like getting kicked in the chest by a donkey. Why didn’t I share it? Because I have a tendency to get a little teachy and I’ve learned to err on the side of caution. I did, however, manage to share my fun fact with all of you. Ha Ha. I do feel better…
I enjoyed the exhibit but I did not leave transported and I think that’s because I longed for the real thing. Whale-watching isn’t easy in the Denver Metro area but I attended University in Juneau Alaska and experienced something magical with whales; something no exhibit could ever duplicate.
The road leading away from Juneau and Auke Bay is riddled with tiny inlets. I often drove out to one of these and would sit on a rock, listen to the water (and nothing else!) and let the peace and calm enter my spirit. I can’t remember exactly how it all happened. Was I with someone? I had to be because I didn’t have my own car. Had I or we not headed out until late or had we been there a while and the sun started setting? Was it late in the year when the sun sets at 4PM and that’s why it happened? I can’t remember. I remember the whales.
I was sitting on a rock in half-light. My attention was focused on the rhythmic rush of the tide as it passed back and forth over the rocks in front of me. The tree covered arms of land enclosing the inlet were little more than vague shadows and thus, at first, I didn’t notice the dark shapes in the water. There were two, far across the water at the entrance to the inlet. I thought they were rock formations jutting out of the water and I’d simply never noticed them before. Then I saw a third rock formation in the center of the inlet. I hadn’t seen it appear but I swear it was moving. If it was, it was moving so slowly I could almost imagine it. It couldn’t be…I hadn’t heard that pop of air and water that happens when a whale surfaces. These had to be rock formations and I’d simply never noticed before. These inlets couldn’t be deep enough for one whale much less three. I couldn’t even tell what kind of whales they were. But they couldn’t be whales. Just rocks in the water.
But that middle rock formation was moving. It was alive. It was a whale. I couldn’t believe it. This was the reason I’d come all the way to Alaska and I was actually seeing whales. I had to be with someone because I remember asking if I was seeing what I was really seeing and I swear I remember my friend Jess insisting I was. We were.
And then there was no space for words. The whales started humming. Not singing like I’d heard on so many different recordings. This was deep, more feeling than sound. I could feel my breast bone vibrating in the same frequency as that hum. And I sat there, mesmerized. Chronos became kairos and I sat there, my frail human body attached to that massive dark shape in the water because of that hum. Even now, when I remember this happening, I don’t recall any sense of the passage of time.
I remember getting cold and having to leave but I don’t remember leaving. The entire memory feels like a dream but it wasn’t. I was there. I remember. And no exhibit with specimens and massive whale skeletons can ever compare.