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Creature Feature

Author Billy Baker Illustration Graham Roumieu


The jerboa, which looks like a field mouse fitted with big ears and two rabbit feet, is in need of a cleaning. Inside a small room at Harvard University, a caretaker delicately runs a brush over its fur, sucking off any dirt with a specially filtered vacuum. Then he breaks out the Windex and Q-Tips and gets to work on the eyes.

The cute biped, which likely passed away sometime in the late 19th century, is just one of many stuffed creatures currently being spruced up at Harvard’s Museum of Natural History. The museum may be part of one of the world’s dominant educational institutions, but it still proudly wears the safari hat of a Victorian-era preserve. From its collection of impossibly delicate glass flowers to the now-extinct Tasmanian tiger, the place emits a distinct Teddy Roosevelt vibe, harkening to a time when the only way to see the world’s animals was if they were stuffed and mounted.

Executive Director Elisabeth Werby says she doesn’t want it to stop there, though. The museum is gradually undergoing a renovation that, she says, “keeps the nineteenth century feel with up-to-date research and interpretation.” The Great Mammal Hall, where you can see the animal with the world’s largest brain (the sperm whale) right next to the animal with the world’s longest neck (the giraffe), reopened last year following a major renovation. This fall, the renovated Africa wing opened, and that little jerboa now finds himself dwarfed by a hippo. “That sense of scale is something you can’t get from movies, or even an IMAX screen,” says Werby.

The change most immediately striking to longtime devotees of the museum, however, is the surprisingly fresh smell. A couple of years ago, they finally got rid of the mothballs. After all these decades, it seems, the place had been preserved enough.

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