The Boston Phoenix
1999

city life


Best freak show (other than the subway)

At the Museum of Comparative Zoology, one of four institutions housed within the Harvard University Museum of Natural History, you'll find carefully preserved examples of countless species of birds, fish, reptiles, and some of the earliest known fossilized invertebrates. In fact, the museum, which was founded in 1859 by Swiss-American naturalist Louis Agassiz as a research and educational center, could just as well serve as a taxidermist's training facility, given the vast numbers of stuffed creatures to be examined. An avid collector as well as a scientist, Agassiz secured his trophies by traveling throughout the Americas, hoping to provide others with firsthand knowledge of the great variety of animals in the world. At times it's a little eerie to file past so many stiff, beady-eyed specimens of our finned, furred, and feathered kin, but think of it as an extended zoological show-and-tell sponsored by Charles Darwin, and you should be able to deal.

Think a roomful of arachnids will make your flesh creep? Relax -- before long, you'll be humming a chipper chorus of "Boris the Spider." Also check out the incredibly thorough ornithology exhibit, a maze of glass cases containing more species of feathered vertebrates than there were winged extras in The Birds. One of the most fascinating exhibits is the room-size live ant colony, a hyperspeed celebration of insect ingenuity. Other displays include whale skeletons, the largest turtle shell ever found (eight feet long), the Harvard mastodon, and a 42-foot-long skeleton belonging to an ancient sea serpent. The nice thing about the museum is that if you tire of gawking at dinosaur bones and fish, walruses and polar bears, apes and giraffes and bugs -- or if the fusty odor of the place gets you down -- your admission ticket is also good for the sweet-smelling Botanical Museum and the Mineralogical and Geological Museums, which truly rock.

Museum of Comparative Zoology, 26 Oxford Street, Cambridge, (617) 495-3045.

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