The Cost of Awe

By Kevin Chang

The 2015 median price per square foot of residential space on Manhattan’s Upper West Side is $1,636.[1] An average studio apartment is around 400 square feet, and the square footage value is only a bare minimum pricing guideline for an apartment. Using the median price, a 400 square foot studio would start at around $654,400. Factoring in maintenance charges, common charges, premiums for amenities, and other miscellaneous costs, the price of this hypothetical apartment can soar. A cursory search on zillow.com will corroborate these findings: real estate in Manhattan is valuable.

Even as Manhattan begins to grow towards the sky, and even as developers knock down old, majestic, brownstones to build flashy, new, condos with all glass everything, 1,600,000 square feet of prime Manhattan real estate (worth more than $2.6 billion dollars) on Central Park West at 79th Street are protected by the U.S. National Register of Historic Places. On this lot, 27 interconnected buildings of varying architectural design house 45 permanent exhibition halls, a planetarium, and a library, making up the American Museum of Natural History complex.

I can still describe my first time visiting the museum, and the first time I felt truly awed. I could talk at length about how it feels to be a mere nothing, trembling before the fossil Barosaurus lentus, a sentinel, powerfully poised. I could talk about what it was like for a chubby little boy from Long Island to stare at the 94-foot-long blue whale suspended from the ceiling of the Milstein Family Hall of Ocean Life. I could talk about wandering the endless halls, whose unbelievable exhibitions inspired me to become a scientist.

But I won’t talk about all those things for a few reasons. First, I’m sure you can find stories about the museum everywhere online, and they’d all probably be more elegant and more beautiful than my ham-fisted attempt. Second, if neither the aforementioned writers nor Ben Stiller in Night at the Museum can convince you about the magic of this testament to human accomplishments, there is probably no chance that anything I can say would change your mind. Third, I don’t want to spoil all the fun for readers who haven’t had the fortune to visit. There really is no feeling like turning the corner and not knowing what impressive exhibit lies around the corner.

What I will talk about, though, is my latest visit to the museum. I had just finished my junior year of college and I was feeling particularly cynical. As a 20-year-old, I was more attuned to all of the problems and sadness in this world than ever before; the fact that I was particularly exhausted by finals did nothing to help brighten my outlook. And as a college student, that omnipresent specter of fiscal pressure was constantly shoving its way into every thought I had. As I was planning my regular trip to the museum, a grave thought that I couldn’t quite ignore slithered its way into my mind: was all of this stuff actually worth it? I love the museum, sure—but in this day and age, is the cost of a museum worth it?

This existential crisis clung fast to my psyche, like fluorine to an electron, or unrequited love. I am, if not a child of privilege, very lucky to not have to worry about going to bed hungry or finding a place to sleep. I’m not naïve enough (I don’t think, anyway), to ignore the fact that so many others have things to worry about besides their next day trip to look at fossils. Further, even for those as lucky as I am, do kids even still like museums? Even if someone hasn’t seen a blue whale before, knowing how huge they can be is a few taps away, along with photos and video footage. Is it still possible to be awed, even humbled, by these motionless exhibits? And, if not, how can the price tag be justified?

God, that was horrifying. Was it even worth it? That question made me sick. The painstaking work of curators had once filled me with wonder, but now I could only think of dollar signs.

Not being able to push these questions from my mind was terrifying. The huge blue whale model that never failed to make my jaw drop seemed to shrink, and become just that: a model. Fiberglass. 94 feet of it. Made by some guy somewhere. Hanging in the 29,000 square foot Milstein Family Hall of Ocean Life (worth at least $47.4 million). As I walked, I noticed all the people glued to their phones while standing underneath the largest animal to ever live. It seemed as if no one in the hall gave a damn about the leviathan that hung suspended from the ceiling. Facebook’s cool too, I guess.

Cynical as I was, I plodded upstairs to the Akeley Hall of African Mammals. If I couldn’t stand people, I reasoned that I might as well go hang out with some elephants. People suck, but 8 massive elephants standing in a space of approximately 16,000 square feet (over $26.1 million), surrounded by 28 animal dioramas; I could definitely do that.

I can’t quite remember how long I was staring at those elephants. But I guess the idea that titanic, intimidating beasts eat only vegetation, using only their noses, was particularly amusing to me that day. I tried to picture myself eating a salad using only my nose and two oversized front teeth. When I was finished sulking, I turned around to see a tiny child, mouth agape, staring at the elephants too.

Maybe it was something about the way his dumbfounded expression showed gaps of missing teeth. Maybe it was how he eventually muttered something about wanting to ride an elephant. Maybe it was how I eventually caught myself with the same dumbfounded expression, staring at the eight creatures who might as well have been from a far away planet called Africa.

Whatever it was, I walked out less bitter, no longer needing to attach a price tag to every space. I found my answer: yes. Yes, it is worth it.

1,600,000 square feet is a huge amount of land. That said, if even a fraction of the approximately 5,000,000 annual visitors[2]  can reach their own unique discovery of what awe means, then I have absolutely no doubt that the lot which contains the American Museum of Natural History—exhibition halls, library, planetarium, and all – is the most well-utilized plot of land in all of Manhattan.

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[1] http://www.mns.com/manhattan_new_dev_report

[2] http://www.travelandleisure.com/slideshows/worlds-most-visited-museums/8

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