The Felix M. Warburg Memorial Hall of the American Museum of Natural History, New York City: (Pine Plains: Its Unique Natural Heritage)
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Vol. 2: Pine Plains: Its Unique Natural Heritage

Five Essays


§3 The Felix M. Warburg Memorial Hall of the American Museum of Natural History, New York City

Phyllis S. Bush

What sort of place is Pine Plains? Where is it? What does it look like in summer, winter, spring, fall? Why is it selected for this exhibit? Who lives there? Is it really so beautiful? Was it always?

These are questions asked by countless visitors who view the exhibits contained in the Felix M. Warburg Memorial Hall at the American Museum of Natural History. We who live here may know the answers to some of the questions. This beautiful country is part of our everyday environment. It is always available to us to enjoy, to observe, to study. For inspiration and further instruction a visit to the Warburg Hall is in order Here, using all of the best in museum techniques, artists, technicians, and scientists have assembled a display of the Pine Plains area depicting its history, geology, plant and animal life above and below ground during the year's four seasons. The total result is a fundamental introduction to ecology and an appreciation of conservation.

As you enter the Warburg Memorial Hall of Man and Nature on the first floor of the museum from the Seventy-seventh Street entrance, your eye is greeted by one of the most attractive, and to us, one of the most inspiring though familiar scenes, "AN OCTOBER AFTERNOON NEAR STISSING MOUNTAIN."

You are immediately at home. You will recognize the mountain with Mud Pond and its islands in the foreground. You know at once that the view is from Lake Road. Locate the trail in the back and you can follow it right into the woods. All the familiar colors are there - red, yellow, brown, green - the autumn show produced by oaks, maples, beeches, sumacs, pines.

Some of the animals that live here are shown in this natural habitat:

picture - click to enlarge
The Magnificent diorama at the entrance to the new Felix M. Warburg Memorial Hall shows ''An October Afternoon Near Stissing Mountain''
monarch butterfly, blue jay, dragonfly, red fox, praying mantis. You have seen many others in this setting, probably around the very canoe birch which occupies the left foreground in this exhibit.

The entire scene is bathed in what looks like real sunshine. It is truly a golden October day. Few places in the world have the fall colors which are found in the northeastern part of our country and which is exemplified in this view of Stissing Mountain.

The "Ohs" and "Ahs" of visitors endorse the excitement of this scene. You feel anxious to say, 'You know, I live there." You probably then walk over to the large relief map of the area and find Route 82, Pine Plains, your house. It all looks like a dot on the model but look once more. It has all the beauty shown in that October exhibit.

With this introduction the visitor is ready to explore and to study the rest of the exhibits. There he will learn how the soil, its structure, chemistry and abundance makes it possible for plants to grow, provided they have adequate water and sunshine. He will be informed of the kinds of plants which these soils can support, and how the animals, in turn, depend upon certain kinds of plants. The particular animals which are found here occur because their food needs are provided as well as shelter and adequate places in which to raise their young. Man is very definitely tied to the landscape too, and interrelates with it very closely. This lesson is perhaps the most important and most dramatic story that the Felix M. Warburg Memorial Hall has to relate. It is a lesson which it behooves all of us to understand if we are to retain the inhabitability of our planet.

The exhibit, "Edge of the Woodland," shows the details of life there throughout the four seasons of the year. Here is a winter scene with bare branches but some remaining poison ivy berries. These white fruits which we are taught to avoid may save the lives of birds, who, in turn, may save the crops from insect infestation in the summer.

A cutaway section of the woods showing life above and below ground advises us of the inactivity of the chipmunk during hard winter. He lies all curled up in his little chamber but not very far from his nut supply, should he suddenly feel the urge to nibble.

In contrast there is the nest of the whitefooted mouse who remains active all winter. He uses his warm grass-lined nest for the coldest days but tunnels through the deep snows most of the time seeking seeds and nuts.

Then we see spring. How active it looks in contrast to the winter display! Leaves are emerging. Animals are stirring. The chipmunk is no longer asleep. There is much to do with a family of five babies now. Where the mouse slept is an active yellow wasp nest. Ants are busily at work caring for their young. Earthworms are making burrows and feeding on decayed leaves. All this ground activity is important for maintaining good soil structure and for allowing air and water to reach the soil and the roots of plants. Earthworms, in addition, help to lime the soil.

A fascinating exhibit to study is "From Field to Lake." Six habitats are displayed: lake, marsh, woods, swamp, field, stream. In each of these places live those plants and animals that can get what they need in order to remain alive. You might say that here they can "make a living." In each of these there are plants which provide food and nourishment for themselves as well as for certain animals. They are the "producers" of the community. Then there are those animals which live on these producers, such as frogs in the pond, mice in the field. Since these animals live on plants they are herbivores, as are cows, sheep, and Canada geese. Some animals live on other animals, such as the dragonfly on mosquitoes and foxes on mice and hawks on snakes. These are predators. Both predators and herbivores are known as "consumers. Man is a consumer of both plants and animals.

There is waste aplenty produced by all living things during their lifetime and a considerable amount of waste is added by their death. It would be impossible for life to continue were it not for the destruction and dissolution of dead matter. This is brought about by agents such as bacteria of decay and fungi. Because these organisms reduce the matter upon which they live, they are known as "reducers." All this reduced matter is then recycled into the soil, air, and water where it is available once more to living things. This then is one lesson in ecology which there is for you to learn.

picture - click to enlarge
Robert Kane of the Museum's Department of Preparation, at work on the exhibit section, ''Rotation of Farm Crops in Dutchess County, New York.''

As you examine this exhibit see whether you can construct the interrelationships of the plants and animals shown. You will see trout, muskrat, crayfish, box turtle, painted turtle, ring-necked snake, Virginia rail, red eft, buttercup, cattail, maples. What is the habitat of each? How does each get its food? How does it dispose of its waste? How does each relate to the rest of its community, i.e., what is its "ecological niche?"

The exhibit on soils and soil conservation is illustrated in detail as are plants with different soil requirements. Alfalfa grows best in deep and fertile soils while wheat is more successfully grown in soils with some clay in them. Tomatoes, on the other hand, are most successful in light sandy soils.

The meaning and value of crop rotation occupies another spot. Crops are planted in succession throughout the year. As fall approaches, the farmer plants winter wheat, rye, and barley. These are fast-sprouting plants which get a growing start before cold weather stops that process. These fall crops whose roots bind the soil all winter prevent soil loss from rain or melting snows or strong winds.

Oats are planted in the early spring and harvested by midsummer. This is followed by corn, planted in May and harvested in the fall. It is a wise practice not to plant corn year after year because corn crops exhaust the land so quickly. After crops of timothy and alfalfa have been grown for five years corn can be planted in soil whose fertility has thus been restored.

In such detail, as explained thus far, many exhibits are employed to illustrate the nature of the land, of plants, of animals, and of man in this setting. Evidence is given of good land use as well as the results of its abuse.

There is not room enough here to describe all the other exciting and valuable parts of the exhibit: the geology, the cycle of nutrition and decay, life in the water, constant changes in the forest, the geology of Stissing Mountain, and others. Only a visit can explain to you the meaning of those scenes which you behold daily. Explanations are even given of scenes which we have never seen, scenes before the land was settled by present ancestors. A reconstruction of the history of Pine Plains from these earliest times to the present is depicted in four vivid settings which illustrate how man has treated the land and its resources, and what were the consequences of each type of treatment. First is shown the early times of the primeval forest in our area, then the period of settlement in 1790, followed by the height of affluence in 1870, to be accompanied by the exhaustion of the land and the hard times after 1870 when there was a great movement out of the area. As farming practices improved and the fertility of the land was restored a new period set in, one that is ongoing today.

The American Museum of Natural History is a national museum and it is an honor that the Pine Plains area has been selected to tell the story of man and the land for the rest of America as well as for foreign visitors. It is an exciting story beautifully told.

(EDITOR'S NOTE: The following, which supplements Dr. Busch's article, is based on information from the files of the Register-Herald.)

On May 14, 1951, an excited group of Pine Plains residents, thirty-seven in all, journeyed to New York City to attend the opening of a revolutionary new major exhibition hail at the American Museum of Natural History. They were part of an especially invited group including museum trustees, New York City officials, heads of leading New York scientific and educational institutions as well as press and radio representatives who had come together to do honor to the late Felix M. Warburg, internationally known philanthropist, in whose memory the exhibition hall was presented by his son, Frederick M. Warburg.

The hall consists of exhibits illustrating the ecology of plant and animal life as it exists over forty square miles in the Pine Plains area, and presents a simplified scientific explanation of how and why the land appears as it does today. Under the leadership of Dr. Albert E. Parr, director of the museum, scientists, architects, artists and other specialists had worked for nearly a decade in planning the new hail with Dr. Henry K. Svenson, then chairman and curator of the museum's department of forestry and general botany, conducting years of field research in the Pine Plains area. The department of anthropology of the museum, whose head at the time was Dr. Harry L. Shapiro, a summer resident of Pine Plains, was responsible for the large sectional mural which presents the role of man in the area.

Louis Bromfield, Pulitzer Prize winner and one of the country's foremost exponents of good land use, delivered the chief address and the event was further marked by a broadcast by Lowell Thomas, noted radio news commentator, who conducted his regular CBS program before the guests attending the ceremonies.

Known for his many services and contributions to leading humanitarian projects, Felix M. Warburg played a prominent role in the development of some of our leading art, scientific and educational institutions and for many years had been a valued supporter of the museum. He was instrumental in starting the nature trails and trailside museums at Bear Mountain and, according to his son, felt strongly that New York children did not know what the country was like and that they should. It was Dr. Parr's hope that, by depicting an area near New York City, people who came to the hall might enjoy again in nature what they had learned from the exhibits.

The opening of this hall received wide publicity in The New Yorker and Natural History magazines, The New York Times and other periodicals.

Attending the ceremonies from Pine Plains were: Mr. and Mrs. Henry Grant, Mrs. Lester C. Aroh, Mr. and Mrs. Robert Palmatier, Mr. and Mrs. Vincent Juhring, Mr. and Mrs. A. Matragrano, Mr. and Mrs. O. K. Rowe, John Rowe, Mr. and Mrs. W. Walker Bostwick, Newton D. Deuel, George Rueffer, Mr. And Mrs. Andrew Davis, Jonathan Holdeen, Mr. and Mrs. Oakleigh Jauncey, Mr. and Mrs. Herrick Hedges, Miss Lulu Kisselbrack, Miss Ida Agnelli, Miss Mary Patchin, Dr. and Mrs. M. Kappel, Daniel Kappel, Dr. and Mrs. Ralph Bowman, Mrs. B. F. David, Thomas Davis, Henry Jackson, Mrs. Myron Fuerst, Mrs. L. Elian, Huested Pulver, Dr. and Mrs. H. L. Shapiro, Mrs. Walter Brooks, Mrs. Russell Wiltsie, Mrs. Albert Friedman, Mrs. Thomas LeBrun, Mrs. H. Willard Pulver, Mrs. Robert Turner, Mrs. Charles Place, Mrs. George Langdon, Mrs. Leslie Close, Mrs. E. Earle Chase, and Mrs. Stephen Herlitz.

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