When you think of the American Museum of Natural History, you might think of taxidermy–still life–but not the spur-thighed tortoise brothers Mud and Hermes who live in the herpetology department, or the famous naturalist who inspired Indiana Jones.
For a museum about natural history, AMNH certainly has a long and storied human history, involving explorers, scientists, donors, researchers, visitors, and New Yorkers–even a turtle or two. The Night at the Museum movies show the exhibits coming alive, but the truth is the museum is already very much alive: pushing research through expeditions, spearheading conservation efforts, planting time capsules, hosting live animals, displaying meteorites and collecting stardust, awarding degrees, and bearing the marks of its city and citizens (as detailed by the Village Voice in its 2008 “Best of” edition).
Here are some sensational stories about one of New York City’s most interesting institutions.
1. A rocky start (pun intended)
Envisioned by Albert S. Bickmore and supported by influential New Yorkers, the American Museum of Natural History first manifested in 1871 as an exhibit in the Central Park Arsenal building. Just five years later, the museum garnered over a million visitors annually. In 1877 the museum upgraded to Manhattan Square in the Upper West Side. However, attendance dropped with the move, and the museum soon found itself in hot water with the purchase of costly collections.
In 1880 the museum nearly shut down, but founder Morris K. Jesup stepped in. Over the course of a quarter century, the museum’s third president grew the museum exponentially in terms of employees, exhibition space, and–crucially–funding.
2. “It belongs in a museum!”
The museum participated in and led other groundbreaking expeditions, contributing to the discovery of the North Pole and the mapping of unexplored areas in Siberia, Mongolia, and the Congo. “Though the pace has slowed, expeditions continue to this day. Among 2013’s expeditions were intensive fieldwork on scorpions in Israel and Jordan and finding new bioluminescent underwater species in the Solomon Islands.” The story behind the Whitney Hall of Oceanic Birds, chronicled by Jonathan Meiburg in The Appendix, is an example of one of the museum’s daring, grueling, groundbreaking expeditions turned exhibition.
3. Friends in high places
The museum’s founding was supported by movers and shakers like J.P. Morgan, Andrew Hasswell Green, and Theodore Roosevelt. Civil War general and U.S. president Ulysses S. Grant laid the museum building’s cornerstone, according to a New York Times article from 1874. Naturalist, New York governor, U.S. president, and wild game hunter Teddy Roosevelt donated animals to the museum, including an elephant that is now part of the herd of displayed in the Akeley Hall of African Mammals.
4. Jewel Heist
If you’ve ever thought of museums as stuffy, there may actually be a very good reason for it. A window in the Morgan Hall of Gems that was left cracked open for ventilation afforded acrobatic burglars entrance to the museum, and defunct burglar alarms allowed them to make off with incredibly valuable gems.
On October 29, 1964, after casing the place for a week, Jack Roland Murphy, or “Murph the Surf,” and Allan Dale Kuhn stole high-carat jewels like the Star of India, Midnight Star, De Long Star Ruby and Eagle Diamond. All but the latter were later recovered, and the robbers caught, but the heist made history.
5. The Blue Whale is not falling
According to senior project major Stephen Quinn in TimeOut, the workers who first installed the famous blue whale in the Milstein Hall of Ocean Life in 1969 played a prank on a concerned manager. This manager used a piece of wood that fit between the floor and whale’s chin when standing. Every day, the manager would use the pole to ensure the suspended whale was not sinking. So workers extended the pole’s length slightly by gluing some sawdust on the end so that the manager would believe the whale was slowly falling.
6. Behind the scenes
At any given time, only about 3% of the museum’s collection (comprising over 30 million artifacts) are on display. If you’re picturing the endless warehouse into which the feds wheeled Indiana Jones’s prize find–the Ark of the Covenant–you’re on the right track. According to a backstage tour documented in a dramatically-scored found footage video by Tech Insider, “The museum’s collection is so extensive that audits have led to the discovery of unknown species sitting right on the shelves.”
The video reveals the skull of a dire wolf unearthed in the LA tar pits, an amber collection featuring a 20-million-year-old butterfly and a 100-million-year-old lizard, and “two prehistoric-looking fish have been sitting in alcohol since the 1950s. Scientists thought the coelacanth went extinct more than 65 million years ago.” If that’s not creepy enough, in an Interstellar-esque twist, the museum basement houses over 100,000 tissue samples preserved in liquid nitrogen, so that “if a catastrophe hit New York tomorrow, these specimens would remain frozen for 5 weeks.”
Mental Floss documented a similar scene behind closed doors, noting that the museum has a rare example of a great auk–a penguin-looking bird extinct since 1844–that was once owned by Napoleon Bonaparte’s nephew. A 25-foot long giant squid accidentally caught by a New Zealand fisherman is also housed in the museum, though in pieces: the body is kept in a large tank and the beak is preserved in a jar sitting on the desk of the paleontology curator.
The 21,000-carat gem the Brazilian Princess can also be found at the museum. This jewel was cut in the 70s using specialized equipment, since it was the largest ever cut at the time. According to George Harlow, curator of the division of physical sciences, “‘[…] we had a plan that when the Statue of Liberty had its centennial, a jewelry designer was going to come up with a ring mount to go on the [statue’s] finger.’”
The museum also curates a vast library of over half a million texts.
Despite its many taxidermied subjects (the museum no longer employs this still-life method), the American Museum of Natural History actively participates in conservation efforts, including launching the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation (CBC). “[…] The CBC has conducted site-specific conservation work in British Columbia, working with indigenous groups to preserve native wildlife such as grizzly bears in the Great Bear Rainforest; in the Solomon Islands working to improve land use and protect natural resources; and in inland Southeast Asia, where it discovered previously unrecorded species of amphibians, small mammals, invertebrates and birds.”
8. Continued Learning
The American Museum of Natural History is also the first museum in the country to grant advanced degrees: specifically PhDs in comparative biology. Accredited in 2009, the Richard Gilder Graduate School graduated its first students in 2013.