The largest museum
of its kind in the world squats fortlike on New York's Upper West Side.
Although guidebooks describe its facade as "Victorian Gothic" and
"Romanesque Revival," the American Museum of Natural History resembles
nothing so much as a mammoth National Guard armory. Much of what we know about
the natural world and its evolution is housed in the museum's 20 interconnected
buildings and displayed on its 23 acres of floor space. There are 23.5 million
specimens of skins, bones, fish, rocks, shells, birds, beetles and snakes
packed away in the museum's collection. The public sees less than 5% of this at
any one time.
From the famous
dinosaur skeletons, to the Hayden Planetarium, to a pickled gorilla, to 500,000
very live army ants, the American Museum is as complex as any organism found in
the natural world. It would take 23 acres of paper to describe the
establishment in detail. The only way to approach it is in potshot fashion and
hope that the result will be more comprehensive than the findings of the blind
men who described an elephant, one after touching its tusks, another its ears
and still another its trunk.
The museum was
founded as a result of scholarly infighting and civic pride. Albert S.
Bickmore, a student of the renowned Louis Agassiz of Harvard, packed up his
dissection kit and left Cambridge in a huff in 1863 when his mentor refused to
let him publish scholarly papers. Within five years Bickmore had assembled an
awesome list of backers for a "democratically run museum...a center of
scientific interest and entertainment in the midst of the manifold life of a
great metropolis." J. P. Morgan, Theodore Roosevelt (Teddy's father),
William E. Dodge Jr. and others couldn't let Cambridge and Agassiz's museum
outdo New York. With the help of Boss Tweed they pressured the state into
chartering the new museum.
cornerstone was laid in 1874 the biological sciences were in their heyday. In
1859 Darwin had published The Origin of Species, and many a Victorian gentleman
was a naturalist in his ample leisure time. For some of its founders, then, the
American Museum of Natural History was an entertainment. But today it serves a
sterner purpose. It is a scholarly showplace as well as one for the natural
world. "The collections here are prestigious," says Dr. Thomas D.
Nicholson, the current director. "For instance, our bird collection is the
most complete in the world. And our curatorial staff ranks with that of any
university. Collections are the libraries of science, and they are put to use
by our people. We give over two-thirds of our floor space to exhibitions, but
for every large, exciting mammal displayed in a habitat group, there are
thousands of skeletons, skins and pickled specimens in storage to back up its
So a history of
the museum, and any view of its operation, must be centered around the
collections, that vast bone-yard and fur storage where insect specimens alone,
packed floor to ceiling, extend for a city block.
IF I GIVE YOU A
METEORITE, WILL YOU GIVE ME A VACATION?
The museum not
only profited from the 19th century fascination with evolution, it grew at
exactly the right time for collecting animals and fossils. By 1900 improved
means of transport allowed scientists to explore regions that were previously
inaccessible, and the newly built railroads provided a way of getting weighty
specimens back to the museum.
Also, animals now
crowded out of the North American continent by the relentless bulldozer and
fur-bearing animals eliminated as cash crops were then in abundance. There will
never again be a time in which specimens from the natural world can be
collected with such ease and in such numbers.
One of the great
museum collectors got into that business by applying for a handout—cash or a
craft to carry him off the ice floes. Robert E. Peary, the discoverer of the
North Pole in 1909, was an unknown U.S. Navy engineer in 1894 when he found
himself stranded in Greenland, where he had been exploring on a leave of
absence. His wife wrote to the museum asking for assistance. It sent $1,000 and
over the next decade Peary obtained extended leaves from Navy duty at the
behest of the museum ( Trustee Theodore Roosevelt was Assistant Secretary of the
Navy) to gather musk oxen, caribou, polar bears, walruses, Arctic foxes,
canoes, tents, birds, costumes, sleds and the world's largest excavated
meteorite (38 tons). And Peary's appreciation didn't end there. At this time
one Morris K. Jesup was the museum president, and Peary named numerous outposts
for him. In Greenland there is Cape Morris K. Jesup and Morris K. Jesup Land;
there was Camp Morris K. Jesup at the North Pole and even Peary's dogsled was
christened the Morris K. Jesup.
A BIRD IN THE
The museum used its ever-increasing cash fund to purchase whole collections.
One of the most remarkable buys was of bird skins. In 1927 Lionel Walter
Rothschild, son of the first English Rothschild elevated to the peerage, was
broke. He had quit his father's bank to collect birds and insects instead of
gold and mortgages. Rothschild sold his 280,000 bird skins to the museum for $1
apiece. It was the cornerstone of the museum's present collection of more than
one million skins.