Published: August 25, 2015

A Diorama for Jerry's Guitar

Nigel Pitman, Mellon Senior Conservation Ecologist; Conservation Tools Program Director, Keller Science Action Center


A lot of ink was spilled around the Grateful Dead concerts on the Museum campus last month, but none of the stories I read mentioned the one really indispensable detail—so I figure I'll air it here.

In the days leading up to the concerts the Museum hosted a special exhibition on the Dead, and during that week the great hall was a clash of cultures. There stood the Tyrannosaurus rex, and the fighting elephants, and the four Grecian muses, stately as ever, but all around them hung tie-dyed banners and portraits of the band that wouldn't have looked out of place spray-painted on a van in Fresno. The pterosaur overhead was clutching a Blackhawks pennant, and the third-graders waiting in line for lunch at the Bistro tapped their feet to 'Casey Jones.' It was disconcerting. Walking through the Museum that week, you half-expected to come across The Dude in his bathrobe, spilling a White Russian over one of the dioramas in the Hall of Asian Mammals.

The centerpiece of the special exhibition on the Dead was 'Tiger'—one of Jerry Garcia's favorite guitars, and the one he played at his last show at Soldier Field in 1995.

It's a beautiful object, and it happens to be worth six times my mortgage, but what really caught my attention was its provenance. And here is the indispensable detail: Tiger is made from the heartwood of Dalbergia retusa, a leguminous tree native to the dry forests of Central America.

That fact resonates with me because I study tropical trees, but it also helped dispel some of the cognitive dissonance I felt every time I walked past the Grateful Dead paraphernalia in Stanley Field Hall that week. The Field Museum is so big and its collections so varied that one of the things it can do better than most other places is weave threads of unlooked-for connections between things, no matter how dissimilar they appear at first glance. As I saw it, invisible threads now ran from Jerry's guitar to a hundred other items and people scattered around the building:

  • to the dried plant specimens of D. retusa stacked upstairs in the Field Museum herbarium, shipped to Chicago over the years from forests in Costa Rica, Panama, and Puerto Rico;
  • to the photographs of D. retusa on our plant identification tool pages;
  • to the rosewood panels lining the hallway outside my office on the third floor;
  • to a volunteer in entomology pinning specimens of a bee that pollinates the flowers of D. retusa;
  • to a visitor looking through the rare book room's copy of Linnaeus's 1782 Supplementum Plantarum, in which the genus was originally described;
  • to a journal article about the psychotropic properties of the species' seeds;
  • to the Abbott Hall of Conservation, which explains why D. retusa is globally threatened and what the Museum is doing about it.

Of course the threads also trace back to all the other guitars that have come through the Museum over the years. Some of them have since moved on to other museums, and others are sitting quietly in the collection rooms:

  • armadillo-shell guitars from Mexico;
  • bamboo guitars from the Philippines;
  • the battered old guitar of George Washington Carver;
  • a guitar from China, or Mongolia, made of ivory and snakeskin….

Those threads run, too, to all the forgotten guitarists who played those instruments back before they were artifacts in a museum—whose names we'll never know but whose music maybe brought as much joy to people in their time and place as Jerry's did in his:

There is grandeur in this view of life, as they say—in a life where Jerry shares the stage not just with Phil and Bobby, but with conservators and collection managers; with Curator Emeritus Bill Burger, editor of the Flora Costaricensis; and with a US Army surgeon named Sutton Hayes, who in 1862 collected the type specimen of D. retusa along the Panama canal, at a town called Paradise….

Tiger also contains hardwoods from two other continents: African padauk (Pterocarpus soyauxii), Gaboon ebony (Diospyros crassiflora), and bigleaf maple (Acer macrophyllum). It's got pearl, brass, and nickel. Its strings are made of steel. There's a whole diorama's worth of stuff in that one instrument. You could label the diorama:

'Natural materials composing the guitar of Jerome John Garcia, bandleader, 20th century.'

People would read the label, peer in at the contents—the oyster beds and zinc mines and rainforests—and think it was far out.

And one of those people would be Jerry Garcia. He knew what he was playing, after all. He had a pretty clear notion of where that sound came from. Twenty years after his death, his foundation is still funding the Rainforest Action Network. That Garcia was fanatic about biodiversity is clear in the footage you can find of him scuba-diving. What you see is an almost alarming propensity to touch everything a coral reef has to offer. He runs his hands over corals. He sticks them into crevices. He pets a moray eel. He converses with the moray eel.

The Grateful Dead exhibit is gone now, and Stanley Field Hall has returned to its traditional elegance. The band is gone, too, and so are the fans. Jerry is gone, and D. crassiflora is globally Endangered, and Sutton Hayes succumbed to tuberculosis a year after collecting that specimen in Panama. It's summertime, and a lot of my colleagues in the Museum are away on vacation. Up here on the third floor the hallways are quieter than usual. Every now and then, walking past those rosewood panels outside my office, I'm reminded of something I read about the timber of Dalbergia retusa. The writer claimed that if you suspend a block of heartwood and strike it with a hammer, what you'll hear is the weird, pealing chime of a bell.