SI Vault
J. D. Reed
April 28, 1975
The place to bone up on Tyrannosaurus rex, the Texas pterosaur and other elephantine wonders surely is the American Museum of Natural History, a showcase with more than a few skeletons in its Manhattan closets
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April 28, 1975

Up In Nature's Attic

The place to bone up on Tyrannosaurus rex, the Texas pterosaur and other elephantine wonders surely is the American Museum of Natural History, a showcase with more than a few skeletons in its Manhattan closets

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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.

When the 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 authenticity."

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.


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.

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.

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