9 Things You Won't See on Display at the American Museum of Natural History

joshua scott
joshua scott

A mere 3 percent of the American Museum of Natural History’s 33 million specimens and artifacts are on view at the New York City institution. We took a peek at the rest, which live behind doors locked to the public. From ultra-rare books to ancient bugs, here’s some of the cool stuff we found.

1. A 20-million-year-old butterfly

Preserved in Dominican amber (and a block of epoxy), this Voltinia dramba butterfly is 20 million years old. “Butterflies are rare as fossils,” says David Grimaldi, a curator in the invertebrate zoology division. “They tend to live in areas that wouldn’t fossilize. The other reason is that butterflies’ wings are scaly and soft, and if they’re caught in resin, the scales will come off before the wings actually get covered.”

2. Insects in amber 

Joshua Scott

The museum’s amber collection is housed in Grimaldi’s office. While not huge, “it is dense,” he says. It’s arranged according to deposit and then by group—plants, insects, arthropods, arachnids. (The drawer pictured contains ants.) The only amber on exhibit is in the mineral hall; the pieces with insects in them don’t go on exhibit for conservation reasons—they have to be kept dark and in controlled temperatures and humidity.

3. The rare-book room

Joshua Scott

We can’t talk about the procedures necessary to enter AMNH’s rare-book room, but we can say that they wouldn’t seem out of place in a Mission: Impossible movie. Like many other behind-the-scenes areas of the museum, the room is climate- and humidity-controlled, and lights are usually dimmed. Age and rarity are two things that factor into a decision to place a book into rare folios, says Thomas Baione, Harold Boeschenstein director of the department of library services.

4. Watercolor fish

Joshua Scott

Stored in this room are 48 one-of-a-kind watercolors of fish by artist William Belanske, made during three expeditions to the Galapagos on a yacht belonging to William K. Vanderbilt (yes, of those Vanderbilts). Created in the late ’20s, the elaborate miniature illustrations—some as tiny as 7 centimeters—were put into a book privately published by Vanderbilt. This original watercolor of this silver hatchet fish (Argyropelecus lychus Garman) notes that the fish was “taken in dredge, 50 miles S.W. of Cape Mala, Panama, Pacific Ocean, 300 fathoms below the surface” on March 16, 1926.

5. A very large gem

Joshua Scott

This giant gem—a 21,000 carat light blue topaz called the Brazilian Princess—was cut in the late 1970s, just to prove it could be done, according to George Harlow, curator of the division of physical sciences. “It was the largest gem ever fashioned,” he says. “In order to cut a stone, you have to be able to hold it and put it on a grinding wheel to polish it. That was the challenge at the time.” Machinery had to be created to do the work. Since then, bigger gems have been cut, mostly out of smokey quartz, so it’s no longer the record holder. But it’s so huge that “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,” Harlow says.

6. A 1000-year-old frog

Joshua Scott

Discovered by a museum team in 1897 in Pueblo Bonito— one of the largest ancestral Pueblo settlements in New Mexico’s Chaco Canyon—this jet and turquoise frog is roughly 1000 years old. Shortly after its discovery, the frog disappeared. An AMNH coordinator found it at a trading post 50 miles north, purchased it, and returned it to the museum. Looting at Chaco Canyon inspired the Antiquities Act of 1906, signed by President Theodore Roosevelt, which protected the site and others like it. Part of the archaeology collection, the frog—which symbolized water for the ancestral Pueblo people—is not on display because “at the moment, we don’t have a Hall of SouthWestern American Indians,” says Paul Beelitz, Director of Collections and Archives - Anthropology.

7. A Tasmanian tiger

Joshua Scott

Though it went by a number of names—including Tasmanian tiger, zebra dog, and pouched wolf, among others—Thylacinus cynocephalus was actually a marsupial. This animal (one of 12 thylacine specimens in AMNH’s collection) lived at the Bronx Zoo. After it died in 1920, it was given to the museum and mounted. Neil Duncan, Collections Manager of Mammalogy, says he believes this oft-photographed specimen will be “the iconic piece of the department.” Like a human’s fingerprints, each thylacine’s stripes were unique to that individual. The species is now considered extinct; the last of its kind died in an Australian zoo in 1936.

8. A great auk Mount

Joshua Scott

Before it became extinct, the flightless great auk lived in the North Atlantic, on low-lying islands off Newfoundland and Iceland. “The word penguin originally applied to this bird,” says Paul Sweet, a collections manager. “Its scientific name is Pinguinus. When sailors went down to the Southern Hemisphere, they saw birds that looked superficially like [great auks], and they called them penguins.” The last two auks were killed in 1844; approximately 60 specimens remain—including this one, the Bonaparte auk, which at one point belonged to Napoleon’s nephew, Lucien, an ornithologist.

9. A giant squid beak 

Joshua Scott

In 1998, the museum acquired a male giant squid specimen, which had been accidentally caught by fisherman off the coast of New Zealand. The 25-foot-long animal is stored in a giant steel tank in the museum’s invertebrates department. But its beak is in a different place: the office of Neil H. Landman, curator of the division of paleontology, where it sits in a jar filled with alcohol to keep it from becoming brittle. “It doesn’t really need to be in a jar this big,” says Susan Klofak, a senior museum technician, “but we did need a jar that was this wide-mouthed.”

Here's a video we shot while we were at the museum!

Mental Floss and The American Museum of Natural History from Joshua Scott Photo NYC on Vimeo.

Photos by Joshua Scott.


Take Advantage of Amazon's Early Black Friday Deals on Tech, Kitchen Appliances, and More

Amazon
Amazon

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

Even though Black Friday is still a few days away, Amazon is offering early deals on kitchen appliances, tech, video games, and plenty more. We will keep updating this page as sales come in, but for now, here are the best Amazon Black Friday sales to check out.

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Instant Pot/Amazon

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Sony

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Microsoft/Amazon

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Apple/Amazon

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7 Overlooked Thanksgiving Rituals, According to Sociologists

Even what the dog eats takes on a special significance on Thanksgiving.
Even what the dog eats takes on a special significance on Thanksgiving.
JasonOndreicka/iStock

The carving of the turkey, the saying of the grace, the watching of the football. If a Martian anthropology student asked us to name some cultural rites of Thanksgiving, those would be the first few to come to mind. But students of anthropology know that a society is not always the best judge of its own customs.

The first major sociological study of Thanksgiving appeared in the Journal of Consumer Research in 1991. The authors, Melanie Wallendorf and Eric J. Arnould, conducted in-depth interviews with people about their experiences of the holiday. They also had 100 students take detailed field notes on their Thanksgiving celebrations, supplemented by photographs. The data analysis revealed some common events in the field notes that people rarely remarked on in the interviews. Here are some common Thanksgiving rituals you might not realize qualify as such.

1. Giving Job Advice

Teenagers are given a ritual status shift to the adult part of the family, not only through the move from the kids' table to the grownup table, but also through the career counseling spontaneously offered by aunts, uncles, and anyone else with wisdom to share.

2. Forgetting an Ingredient

Oh no! Someone forgot to put the evaporated milk in the pumpkin pie! As the authors of the Thanksgiving study state, "since there is no written liturgy to insure exact replication each year, sometimes things are forgotten." In the ritual pattern, the forgetting is followed by lamentation, reassurance, acceptance, and the restoration of comfortable stability. It reinforces the themes of abundance (we've got plenty even if not everything works out) and family togetherness (we can overcome obstacles).

3. Telling Disaster Stories of Thanksgivings Past

One day she'll laugh about this.cookelma/iStock

Remember that time we fried a turkey and burned the house down? Another way to reinforce the theme of family togetherness is to retell the stories of things that have gone wrong at Thanksgiving and then laugh about them. This ritual can turn ugly, however, if not everyone has gotten to the point where they find the disaster stories funny.

4. The Reappropriation of Store-Bought Items

Transfer a store-bought pie crust to a bigger pan, filling out the extra space with pieces of another store-bought pie crust, and it's not quite so pre-manufactured anymore. Put pineapple chunks in the Jello, and it becomes something done "our way." The theme of the importance of the "homemade" emerges in the ritual of slightly changing the convenience foods to make them less convenient.

5. The Pet’s Meal

The pet is fed special food while everyone looks on and takes photos. This ritual enacts the theme of inclusion also involved in the inviting of those with "nowhere else to go."

6. Putting Away the Leftovers

These leftovers will make delicious soup.smartstock/iStock

In some cultures, feasts are followed by a ritual destruction of the surplus. At Thanksgiving, the Puritan value of frugality is embodied in the wrapping and packing up of all the leftovers. Even in households in which cooking from scratch is rare, the turkey carcass may be saved for soup. No such concern for waste is exhibited toward the packaging, which does not come from "a labor of love" and is simply thrown away.

7. Taking a Walk

After the eating and the groaning and the belly patting, someone will suggest a walk and a group will form to take a stroll. Sometimes the walkers will simply do laps around the house, but they often head out into the world to get some air. There is usually no destination involved, just a desire to move and feel the satisfied quietness of abundance—and to make some room for dessert.