The Explorers Club headquarters on East 70th Street might be New York City’s best-kept secret. In spirit and purpose, it is the meeting place and physical center for an international association of scientists and explorers. In aesthetics, it resembles a Jacobean manor house crossed with a natural history museum, complete with wood-paneled walls, elaborate molding, and a terrace marked by a colonnade from a monastery in France that matches the one in the Cloisters.
The club first met in 1904 as an unofficial gathering of like-minded men (women weren’t allowed until 1981). By the following year, the Explorers Club was incorporated, though it bounced around several locations—first on the Lower East Side and then by Columbia University—before ending up at its current location in 1965. The house was originally built in 1910 for Stephen Clark, heir of the Singer sewing machine fortune, with the intention of mimicking a historical style. Clark lived there with his family until he passed away in 1960. Five years later, the entire multistory townhouse was purchased for the club with the help of member Lowell Thomas.
These days, the club serves as a fellowship that awards grants and provides a social and professional network for continuing generations of explorers. Entry into that network, which includes dozens of chapters around the world, requires a background of extensive travel and a number of recommendations from current members. The house retains certain functions of its own: Members give lectures on their research and travel, relevant films are shown, and independent organizations from charities to documentary filmmakers make use of the stunning setting. The club invites passers-by, perhaps intrigued by the heavy iron doors or the personalized flag, to pop in and get a feel for the place. But those interested in getting a closer look, either at any of the objects mentioned here or the vast research collection of exploration documents, should make an appointment with the club’s curator.
1. USS Explorer Table
One of the first remarkable artifacts in the club is hidden in plain sight. A sumptuous sitting room centers around a heavy wooden coffee table with a rich history. It’s built from a hatch cover for the USS Explorer, an unarmed research vessel that was one of only seven ships in the area to survive the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. At the time of the bombing, the Explorer was out to sea—in fact, it was the nearest American ship to the Japanese fleet responsible for the attack—which was how it was spared a violent end.
2. Dowager Empress Chair
In the same room as the USS Explorer table is a chair with royal origins. Not much is known about the intricately carved wooden seat, but it is rumored to have belonged to Empress Wanrong, the wife of Puyi, last emperor of China.
3. Matthew Henson‘s Mittens
Matthew A. Henson, who became the first Black person admitted to the club in 1937, was Robert Edwin Peary’s assistant on a number of Arctic expeditions, including the one they claimed as the first to reach the geographic North Pole in 1909. The club displays sealskin mittens with polar bear fur cuffs made for Henson by an Inuit woman who accompanied them on their voyage. On the gloves is inscribed Matthew A. Henson, May 5, 1934… To -- Explorers Club … worn by me from Cape Sheridan to it -- North Pole, April 6, 1909.
4. Thor Heyerdahl‘s Kon-Tiki Globe
In 1947, club member Thor Heyerdahl wanted to show that early South Americans could have settled the islands of the South Pacific as far back as 500 CE. The Norwegian mariner set sail from Peru with a five-man crew aboard a raft, called the Kon-Tiki, made of balsa logs and other materials and techniques consistent with what would have been available to Indigenous sailors at that time. One hundred and one days and 4300 miles later, the team landed in Polynesia. (Later research disproved Heyedahl’s theory, anthropologists now believe Polynesian navigators settled the islands.) Heyerdahl’s expedition was first proposed and partially planned using this globe, which was at the time located in the Explorers Club headquarters on West 72nd Street.
5. Albert Operti’s Rescue at Camp Clay
In 1881, Adolphus W. Greely—a decorated Civil War veteran who would become the Explorers Club’s first president in 1905—set off with a crew of 24 men to explore extreme northern Canada. The government-funded Lady Franklin Bay Expedition made numerous scientific contributions and observations, with some members trekking farther north than anyone before them. However, during the expedition, heavy ice stranded the explorers and prevented relief vessels from reaching them for three years. By the time a rescue ship found the crew on June 22, 1884, at Cape Sabine on Ellesmere Island, two-thirds had succumbed to starvation, exposure, scurvy, drowning, and suicide—and one member had been executed as punishment for stealing food. In the aftermath, the six survivors were plagued by rumors of cannibalism.
The painting, commissioned by the government to hang in the U.S. Capitol, depicts a scene of the rescue. Artist Albert Operti did extensive research, interviewing the survivors as well as those who were part of the rescue team, for details about the tents and other materials. He even studied pre-expedition portraits of the deceased crew members. The club purchased the painting in 1946 for $105.
6. Bell from the Bear
The Bear was a U.S. Coast Guard cutter that was part of a three-ship mini fleet responsible for finding and rescuing Greely’s surviving crew. The bell was presented to the club in 1933 and since then has been rung to mark the start of club functions.
7. Mariana Trench/Mount Everest Flag
The club’s flag is an iconic part of its tradition. Each flag produced is assigned a number, and members must apply for the honor of carrying one on their expeditions, submitting a thesis-style report to be included in the flag’s file upon return. A database tracks all of the flags’ voyages. Often, explorers who have been granted the privilege seek to carry a flag that has been to similar locations or was carried by one of their idols. On the occasion of some particularly admirable voyage, or because of damage sustained, flags are retired to be part of the rotating collection on display in the club. The Flag Room provides a sense of the club’s wide-ranging purview in the world of exploration and notable historical events—the Apollo 13 flag was returned unopened in the non-flammable plastic casing in which it was packed, with a note explaining that since “plans were disrupted” it was never planted on the moon’s surface.
Not all explorers opt for flags that have been to similar locations—in fact, an instance of just the opposite created a unique artifact. Flag 161 accompanied 19 voyages during its active tenure from 1955 to 2012. Among those was a trip to the top of Mount Everest, and the last one was a descent with James Cameron to the bottom of the Mariana Trench in the Deepsea Challenger. Along with a host of other accomplishments, this means that Flag 161 is the only object in the world to have traveled to both the highest and lowest points on the planet.
8. “Yeti Scalp”
Tales of an abominable snowman called the Yeti inspired Explorers Club members Sir Edmund Hillary and Marlin Perkins to travel to Nepal in 1960. Among the evidence for this mythical monster cited by locals was a supposed scalp, which had been housed at a temple in Khumjung for over 200 years. Unfortunately for Yeti enthusiasts everywhere, Perkins, a zoologist, concluded that the “scalp” was made from the hide of a Himalayan serow—a goat-like hoofed mammal. To substantiate this claim, he had a villager create an exact replica using goat hide, which is what you see here.
9. Description de l'Égypte
Despite suffering an ignominious military defeat in Egypt, Napoleon Bonaparte’s campaign up the Nile in 1798–99 provided the world with one of the most important documents in Egyptology. Along with his army, Napoleon brought nearly 200 scholars and scientists known as savants to compile ethnographic information about ancient and modern Egypt. The result was 22 volumes called Description de l’Égypte, ou recueil des observations et des recherches qui ont été faites en Égypte pendant l’expédition de l’armée française. Or in English: Description of Egypt, or collection of observations and research made in Egypt during the expedition of the French Army. The texts are, of course, written in French, but the oversized volumes that include hand-colored pictures are stunning and worth a look.
10. Double Elephant Tusk
These four tusks, the fearsome-looking result of a rare genetic mutation, all belonged to the same elephant. The tusks were collected by club member Armand Denis, an adventurer and filmmaker who led a famous expedition across Africa in 1934, but they were donated by the estate of Sally H. Clark, wife of James L. Clark, who served as director for preparations at the American Museum of Natural History.
11. Stuffed Whale Penis
Not much is known about this stuffed whale penis, which was given to the club in 1977 by Mr. and Mrs. Frederick S. Schauffler, but it is a favorite among visitors. Worth checking out, if only for a better sense of scale.
A version of this story was published in 2016; it has been updated for 2023.