IN the American imagination, Cuba evokes a scant handful of trademark sights and sounds: sugarcane, rum, 1950s Fords and Chevys, the Buena Vista Social Club. Cigars, of course. And for the last half-century and more, Fidel Castro.
But the island—or islands, more than 4,000 of them—is also a great natural theater.
Extending nearly 800 miles, greater than the distance between New York and Atlanta, it embraces mangrove swamps, scrubland, savannas, forests and spectacular coral reefs, habitats for the world’s smallest bird (the bee hummingbird), an alarming leaping crocodile and the ultra-elusive ivory-billed woodpecker.
In Cuba!, a boutique-size exhibition that opened last November 21, the American Museum of Natural History tries to do honor to all of the above, from the cars and cigars to Santeria rites, rice and beans, the Cienfuegos Elephants baseball team and—live and in changing color—the chameleon-like Allison’s anole lizard.
If that sounds like a lot, it is. The show’s curators, Ana Luz Porzecanski of the museum’s Center for Biodiversity and Conservation, and Chris Raxworthy, the curator in charge of its department of herpetology, have worked with a team at the Cuban National Museum of Natural History to deliver Cuba whole—its history, culture, politics and natural environment in the museum’s first fully bilingual exhibition.
This is an overly ambitious assignment that delivers less by trying to do more and takes away from the museum’s strong suit, its unparalleled expertise in presenting, and explaining, in a visually arresting way, the wonders of the natural world.
A nation frozen in time
Cuba! starts off with a bang. Just inside the entrance, as improbable and nearly as imposing as a brontosaurus, squats a four-door, two-tone 1955 Chevy Bel Air, headlights and taillights shining, Cuban music wafting from the radio.
It opens up pertinent topics: the US embargo, the rickety Cuban economy, the sense of a nation frozen in time. But first and foremost, it is a marvelous piece of sculpture, so dazzling that it would be churlish to point out that no one goes to a natural-history museum to see a car.
The exhibition is laid out like a Cuban street, with colonnaded shops on one side. It’s an invitation to saunter, with random sights arranged along the central walkway. There’s a market stall heaped with fruit; a towering, Gumby-like carnival figure in a sparkly, sequined outfit; and a bicitaxi, Cuba’s pedicab, ubiquitous after the collapse of the Soviet Union led to a shortage of fuel.
The bicitaxi is a solid-looking piece of work—a 1955 Chevy in its own way—with streamers on the handlebars; a tiny, very painful-looking saddle; and an upholstered seat for two passengers. Any driver who can move it from a position of rest deserves a large tip.
Off to the right, beneath a colonnade, a window opens into a cigar-rolling factory, with bundled leaves hanging from the rafters. By flipping aside a metal lid atop a silver canister, you can inhale the heady aroma of a fine Cuban cigar.
Next door, a facsimile of a shop celebrates the Cuban national drink, guarapo, made with juice pressed from freshly cut sugarcane stalks.
There’s a little of this, a little of that. An old-fashioned Zenith radio, of the kind Ernest Hemingway listened to when he lived outside Havana in the 1940s and 1950s, sits on a stand, broadcasting different types of music as you twist the dial. In one room, the organizers have lovingly recreated shrines to two orishas, or spirits, central to the Afro-Cuban Santeria religion: Ogun, ruler of iron and war, and the ocean goddess Yemaya.
Near a café table arrayed with domino tiles, another national religion, baseball, gets its own display. A series of flippable plastic display cards shows Cuba’s baseball teams—the Tobacco Farmers of Pinar del Río, the Oranges of Villa Clara, the Crocodiles of Matanzas—with a few entertaining facts about each. The Cienfuegos Elephants once intimidated opposing fans with the slogan “The pace of the elephant is slow but crushing.” (Something might have been lost in translation.)
The natural world, parked off to one side, offers unexpected thrills. The sheer variety of the Cuban landscape comes as a surprise, erasing the image of the hinterland as an endless vista of sugarcane and tobacco fields.
Large dioramas dramatize three of the country’s principal ecosystems: the forests of Alejandro de Humboldt National Park in the extreme southeast; the wetlands of the Zapata Peninsula on the southern coast of northwestern Cuba; and the coral reefs of the Gardens of the Queen, an archipelago off the southcentral coast.
This is what we have been waiting for. Although the Cuban giant owl, an awesome predator nearly 4 feet tall, no longer terrorizes rodents, having died out some 12,000 years ago, and sloths the size of Saint Bernards no longer creep through the forest, the park harbors Demarest’s hutia, a brown-furred rodent weighing up to 20 pounds, and the solenodon, an insectivore with a pointy snout and weak, beady eyes that secretes venom through a groove in its front teeth.
All are represented and posed, taxidermically, with the flair that you expect from the museum.
The coral reef, flickering with simulated sunlight, plunges the viewer into an undersea fantasia. An enormous black eagle ray, patterned in circles and dashes like a 1950s Formica dinette table, appears to be cruising the sea floor, as striped red lionfish and benign-looking hawksbill turtles wend their way through coral stalagmites.
A flatscreen display off to the side brings the reef action to life in an endless film that bears endless watching.
Horror lurks. In the Zapata wetlands, Cuban parakeets and spoonbills luxuriate in the tropical humidity, at peace with the world, as an explosion of violence takes place a few steps away. Frozen in midair, a Cuban crocodile, has just pushed off from the sand-bottomed shallows with its powerful tail, whipping the turbid water into a froth, ready to snatch a spoonbill in flight.
In a display case nearby is a curiosity: the skull of a Cuban crocodile that died in 2005 after spending most of its life at the Bronx Zoo. After Castro visited the zoo in 1959, visitors began calling the crocodile Fidel. He was a feisty individual. For the annual weighing and measuring of the reptiles in 1967, it took five zookeepers nearly an hour to tape Fidel’s jaws shut and bind him with 100 feet of rope.
Across from the dioramas, several display cases contain anole lizards, experts at disguise and masters of the mannequin challenge. A demure Cuban tree frog, intensely green, clings to a branch. All blink mildly when observed, clinging with sensitive fingers to their chosen twigs.
There’s another reptile with a temper, the Cuban boa, tightly coiled in the shade of a small tree trunk.
“I’ve handled these in the field and thought that they were rather sweet and gentle,” said Raxworthy, the herpetologist, in a walk-through of the exhibition before it opened. “But this one is vicious. It’s actually bitten people and drawn blood.” (He was referring to staff members, not visitors.)
The New York Times, Business Mirror
January 8, 2017
Image Credits: Mark Kauzlarich/The New York Times