13 Facts About the American Museum of Natural History

Don DeBold, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Don DeBold, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

The American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York City is celebrating a big anniversary this month. The museum was officially created 150 years ago on April 6—almost exactly one year before another New York museum, the Met, was incorporated. What started out as the brainchild of a 19th-century naturalist named Albert Smith Bickmore has gone on to become a major hub of education, research, and innovation. Here are 13 facts you might not know about this beloved institution.

  1. The American Museum of Natural History used to be located in Central Park.

The Arsenal building
Internet Archive Book Images, Wikimedia Commons // No known copyright restrictions

Bickmore’s vision of establishing a natural history museum in New York City was realized in 1869, when the governor signed off on the idea. (It also helped that he had the support of several influential people, including J.P. Morgan and Theodore Roosevelt, Sr., the father of the future president.) The first exhibit opened in the Central Park Arsenal in 1871, but the museum's collection quickly outgrew the building. Three years later, the foundation of the museum’s first permanent building was built along West 77th Street.

  1. The American Museum of Natural History has been sending research expeditions around the world since 1881.

Each year, the museum organizes more than 100 research expeditions that visit destinations around the world. This globetrotting tradition dates back to the late 19th century, when Morris K. Jesup became president of the museum. During his tenure from 1880 to 1908, museum ambassadors explored the North Pole, Siberia, Outer Mongolia, Congo, and more.

  1. Theodore Roosevelt hunted animals on the museum’s behalf.

If you head to the museum's Akeley Hall of African Mammals, you’ll see a cluster of elephants. One of them was shot in 1909 by former President Theodore Roosevelt during a specimen-collecting trip to Africa, which was arranged by the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. During this trip, Roosevelt, his son Kermit, and naturalist Carl Akeley hunted and donated thousands of African animals to the Smithsonian's network of museums, some of which ended up at AMNH. The trip was labeled a conservation mission, but as Vox notes, the rules surrounding big-game hunting in Africa were a lot different in the early 20th century.

  1. The American Museum of Natural History has more than 33 million pieces in its collection.

Only about 3 percent of museum's millions of specimens and cultural artifacts are on public display. Some of the pieces you won’t see include a giant squid beak, a 20-million-year-old butterfly, and a 21,000-carat light blue topaz. According to the museum, its collections grow by 90,000 specimens each year.

  1. The man who discovered T. Rex worked for the museum.

Fossil hunter Barnum Brown—a.k.a. "the greatest dinosaur collector of all time"—joined the museum in 1897 as a field assistant, working his way up to become curator of the department of vertebrate paleontology. He uncovered the first Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton in Hell Creek, Montana, in 1902, and in 1908, he found a near-complete skeleton in Big Dry Creek, Montana. The skeleton came back to the museum, was given the identifier AMNH 5027, and can now be seen in the Hall of Saurischian Dinosaurs. According to Mark Norell, chair of the Division of Paleontology, most of the dinosaur specimens on display in the museum were collected by Brown.

  1. More than $400,000 worth of jewels were stolen from the museum in 1964.

After darkness fell on October 29, 1964, a 27-year-old surfer dude from Miami named Jack Murphy, a.k.a. “Murf the Surf,” broke into the museum’s Morgan Memorial Hall (then called the J. P. Morgan Hall of Gems and Minerals) with two accomplices. They climbed a fence, then a fire escape, and attached a rope to a pillar above an open window leading to the hall of jewels. After swinging their way inside, they used a glass cutter and a squeegee to break into cases and grabbed the world’s biggest sapphire, a 100-carat ruby, and other precious jewels. Murf had been inspired to commit the crime after seeing the movie Topkapi, which featured the robbery of Istanbul's Topkapi Palace Museum.

The men were later caught and imprisoned, but some of the stones were never recovered, including the 14-carat Eagle Diamond, which was the largest one ever found in the U.S. at that time.

  1. The pronghorn diorama contains real poop.

Some of the animal exhibits are shockingly lifelike, and that can be attributed to the thought and planning that goes into each display. When the pronghorn diorama was updated in 2012, little pellets of poop were added to the ground for authenticity. The feces had been collected from a ranch in Montana, then freeze-dried and plopped into place using a coffee scoop.

  1. It takes three days to clean the museum’s blue whale model.

The blue whale is the largest animal to ever live on Earth, so it’s only fitting that the museum’s replica is true to size, at 94 feet long. Suspended from the ceiling in the Milstein Hall of Ocean Life, the whale model is cleaned once a year with vacuums and long-handled brushes. From head to tail, the cleaning process takes three days to complete.

  1. One of its directors may have been an inspiration for Indiana Jones.

Before he was director of the museum—a role he held from 1935 to 1942—Roy Chapman Andrews was an explorer who went to sea to research whales and led expeditions to the Gobi Desert, where his team discovered the first-ever nest of dinosaur eggs. "I wanted to go everywhere," he once wrote. "I would have started on a day’s notice for the North Pole or the South, to the jungle or the desert. It made not the slightest difference to me.” According to the Roy Chapman Andrews Society, "Andrews—for whom adventure and narrow escapes from death were a staple of exploring—is said to have served as inspiration for the Hollywood character Indiana Jones.” (George Lucas, it should be noted, has never confirmed this.)

  1. It has appeared in a handful of movies.

Even if you haven’t personally visited the museum, you’ve probably seen it in a movie at some point. Most famously, the outside of the building and some interior shots were shown in Night at the Museum (2006) starring Ben Stiller. It has also appeared in The Devil Wears Prada (2006), Wonderstruck (2017), Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977), and Malcolm X (1992).

  1. You can spend the night inside the museum ...

For an unforgettable slumber party, kids between the ages of 6 and 13 can explore the museum by flashlight. Once they get sleepy, they can set up their sleeping bags in one of four halls: Ocean Life, African Mammals, North American Mammals, or Planet Earth. Grown-ups aren’t entirely left out, though. Adults-only sleepovers (ages 21 and up) are occasionally arranged, and those include a buffet dinner, champagne reception, and jazz performance.

  1. … And get married there, too.

The Rose Center at night
The Rose Center
Ralph Hockens, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

History buffs with an ample wedding budget might want to tie the knot beneath the museum’s blue whale or beside a Barosaurus. Several of the museum’s rooms, including the Rose Center for Earth and Space and Theodore Roosevelt Rotunda, can be booked for social events.

  1. The museum recently updated a controversial diorama.

The exhibit, located in the museum's Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Hall, showed a meeting between members of the Lenape tribe and Peter Stuyvesant, the leader of the Dutch colony of New Netherland. According to The New York Times, critics of the diorama—which was created in 1939—said that it showed "cultural hierarchy, not a cultural exchange," and that it only mentioned Stuyvesant by name, without mentioning any of the Native leaders. On the exhibit's page, the museum notes that "the depiction of the Lenape reflects common clichés and a fictional view of the past that ignores how complex and violent colonization was for Native people." Rather than tweak the diorama itself, or dismantle it, the museum added labels in October 2018 acknowledging its issues—a solution that artist Amin Husain, member of Decolonize This Place, told the Times works "because it honors the fact that that was there to begin with, so it references the harm that has been perpetuated over the years. And then it says, ‘We’re going to tell you how that was wrong.’”

The 11 Best Movies on Netflix Right Now

Laura Dern and Scarlett Johansson in Marriage Story (2019).
Laura Dern and Scarlett Johansson in Marriage Story (2019).
Wilson Webb/Netflix

With thousands of titles available, browsing your Netflix menu can feel like a full-time job. If you're feeling a little overwhelmed, take a look at our picks for the 11 best movies on Netflix right now.

1. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)

Spider-Man may be in the middle of a Disney and Sony power struggle, but that didn't stop this ambitious animated film from winning the Oscar for Best Animated Feature at the 2019 Academy Awards. Using a variety of visual style choices, the film tracks the adventures of Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), who discovers he's not the only Spider-Man in town.

2. Hell or High Water (2016)

Taylor Sheridan's Oscar-nominated Hell or High Water follows two brothers (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) who take to bank robberies in an effort to save their family ranch from foreclosure; Jeff Bridges is the drawling, laconic lawman on their tail.

3. Raging Bull (1980)

Robert De Niro takes on the life of pugilist Jake LaMotta in a landmark and Oscar-winning film from Martin Scorsese that frames LaMotta's violent career in stark black and white. Joe Pesci co-stars.

4. Marriage Story (2019)

Director Noah Bambauch drew raves for this deeply emotional drama about a couple (Adam Driver, Scarlett Johansson) whose uncoupling takes a heavy emotional and psychological toll on their family.

5. Dolemite Is My Name (2019)

Eddie Murphy ended a brief sabbatical from filmmaking following a mixed reception to 2016's Mr. Church with this winning biopic about Rudy Ray Moore, a flailing comedian who finds success when he reinvents himself as Dolemite, a wisecracking pimp. When the character takes off, Moore produces a big-screen feature with a crew of inept collaborators.

6. The Lobster (2015)

Colin Farrell stars in this black comedy that feels reminiscent of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman's work: A slump-shouldered loner (Farrell) has just 45 days to find a life partner before he's turned into an animal. Can he make it work with Rachel Weisz, or is he doomed to a life on all fours? By turns absurd and provocative, The Lobster isn't a conventional date movie, but it might have more to say about relationships than a pile of Nicholas Sparks paperbacks.

7. Flash of Genius (2008)

Greg Kinnear stars in this drama based on a true story about inventor Robert Kearns, who revolutionized automobiles with his intermittent windshield wiper. Instead of getting rich, Kearns is ripped off by the automotive industry and engages in a years-long battle for recognition.

8. Locke (2013)

The camera rarely wavers from Tom Hardy in this existential thriller, which takes place entirely in Hardy's vehicle. A construction foreman trying to make sure an important job is executed well, Hardy's Ivan Locke grapples with some surprising news from a mistress and the demands of his family. It's a one-act, one-man play, with Hardy making the repeated act of conversing on his cell phone as tense and compelling as if he were driving with a bomb in the trunk.

9. Cop Car (2015)

When two kids decide to take a police cruiser for a joyride, the driver (Kevin Bacon) begins a dogged pursuit. No good cop, he's got plenty to hide.

10. Taxi Driver (1976)

Another De Niro and Scorsese collaboration hits the mark, as Taxi Driver is regularly cited as one of the greatest American films ever made. De Niro is a potently single-minded Travis Bickle, a cabbie in a seedy '70s New York who wants to be an avenging angel for victims of crime. The mercurial Bickle, however, is just as unhinged as those he targets.

11. Sweet Virginia (2017)

Jon Bernthal lumbers through this thriller as a former rodeo star whose career has left him physically broken. Now managing a hotel in small-town Alaska, he stumbles onto a plot involving a murderer-for-hire (Christopher Abbott), upending his quiet existence and forcing him to take action.

11 Unusual Christmas Traditions Around the World

A Mari Lwyd—a ghostly horse figure brought door-to-door between Christmas and New Year’s Eve in Wales
A Mari Lwyd—a ghostly horse figure brought door-to-door between Christmas and New Year’s Eve in Wales
R. fiend, Wikimedia // CC BY-SA 3.0

We all know about the typical trappings of Christmas—Santa, the tree, eggnog and carols, turkey and ham, that fruitcake that’s made three trips around the country and counting. But what about traditions that are generally less well-known in America—the ones that might take place halfway around the world? Traditions like the Swedes watching the same Donald Duck cartoon each year, the Japanese devouring KFC, or Austria’s “bad Santa,” Krampus? Allow us to take you on a journey with the international Christmas traditions below.

1. Sweden // Watching Donald Duck on Television

Every year at 3 p.m. on Christmas Eve, around half of Sweden sits down to watch the 1958 Walt Disney TV special “From All of Us to All of You.” Known in Swedish as Kalle Anka och hans vänner önskar God Jul, the title translates to “Donald Duck and His Friends Wish You a Merry Christmas.” But, really, it’s usually known as Kalle Anka. Since 1959, the show has been airing without commercial interruption at the same time every December 24 on TV1, Sweden’s main public television channel. According to Slate, it’s one of the three most popular TV events each year, and lines of the cartoon’s dialogue have become common Swedish parlance.

Slate’s Jeremy Stahl, who remembers his first Christmas visiting Sweden with his soon-to-be-wife, observes, “I was taken aback not only by the datedness of the clips (and the somewhat random dubbing) but also by how seriously my adoptive Swedish family took the show. Nobody talked, except to recite favorite lines along with the characters." Stahl notes that for many Swedes, other Christmas Eve festivities revolve around watching the show—what time they eat the Christmas meal, for example—and that, although the tradition may seem strange, it also makes some sense: “For many Swedes, there is something comforting about knowing that every year there is one hour, on one day, when you sit down with everyone in your family and just be together.”

2. Venezuela // Roller Skating to Christmas Eve Mass

Roller skates on a wooden background
xavigm/iStock via Getty Images

In the Venezuelan capital of Caracas, it’s a long-established tradition to strap on your skates and roll on over to morning Christmas mass. According to Metro.co.uk, legend has it that children go to bed with a piece of string tied to their toes, with the other end dangling out the window. As the skaters glide by early the next morning, they give the strings a firm tug to let the children know it’s time to wake up and put on their skates. Firecrackers accompany the sound of the church bells, and when mass is finished, everyone gathers for food, music, and dance. The custom continues today.

3. Japan // Eating KFC on Christmas Eve

A KFC in Japan at Christmas
A KFC in Japan at Christmas
Robert Sanzalone, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Christmas isn't a widely celebrated holiday in Japan—a mere 1 percent of Japanese people are estimated to be Christian—and yet a bucket of KFC “Christmas Chicken” is the popular meal on December 24. According to the BBC, 3.6 million families celebrated this way in 2016.

It all began with a 1974 marketing campaign—“Kurisumasu ni wa kentakkii” (Kentucky for Christmas). According to Smithsonian, when a group of foreigners couldn’t find Christmas turkey and opted for KFC instead, the company saw it as a fabulous marketing opportunity and advertised its first Christmas meal—chicken and wine for the equivalent of $10, which, Smithsonian notes, was rather pricey for the mid-'70s. These days, the Christmas dinner includes cake and champagne, and costs roughly $40. Many people order their meals far in advance to avoid lines; those who forget can end up waiting for as long as two hours.

4. Ukraine // Decorating the Tree with (Fake) Spiders and Webs

A Ukrainian spider web Christmas tree ornament
A Ukrainian spider web Christmas tree ornament
Marty Gabel, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

According to Ukrainian folklore, there was a poor family with a widowed single mother who couldn’t afford to decorate their Christmas tree. One night, as they all slept, a wonderful Christmas spider decorated the tree with a beautiful, sparkly web. The rays of the sun touched the web, turning it to silver and gold, and from that day on the family wanted for nothing. Ukrainian families decorate their trees with glittering spiders and their webs in honor of the tale.

5. Guatemala // La Quema del Diablo, “Burning the Devil”

Bonfires in Guatemala on La Quema del Diablo
Bonfires in Guatemala on La Quema del Diablo
Conred Guatemala, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Every December 7, beginning at 6 p.m. sharp, Guatemalans build bonfires to “burn the devil” and kick off their Christmas season. The tradition has particular significance in Guatemala City, according to National Geographic, due to its association with the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, which honors the city’s patron saint. The tradition evolved from simply lighting bonfires during colonial times to burning a devil figure to clear the way for a celebration of the Virgin Mary. In recent years, devil piñatas have been added to the festivities, too. These days, an estimated 500,000 bonfires burn in the course of an hour on the holiday, and fireworks explode across the smoky sky.

6. Catalonia // Caganer, the Pooping Christmas Figurine

A caganer figure at a Barcelona Christmas market
A caganer figure at a Barcelona Christmas market
J2R/iStock via Getty Images

A regular figure in Catalonian nativity scenes, the caganer is a bare-bottomed man with his pants around his knees as he bends over to poop. He typically wears a white shirt and a barretina, a traditional Catalan hat. The caganer most likely first appeared in nativity scenes in the early 18th century; nativity scenes in the region typically represent pastoral scenes with depictions of rural life. The caganer often appears crouched behind a tree or a building in a corner of the nativity. Caganer literally means “pooper” in Catalan, and no one is certain of his significance, though one theory is that he represents good luck and the wish for a prosperous new year, since the pooping could be construed as the fertilization of the earth. Another theory is that he represents the mischief that resides in all of us. Yet another theory: he could merely represent humility and humanity. After all, everyone poops.

7. Wales // Mari Lwyd, or “Gray Mare”

Mari Lwyd, or “Gray Mare,” is the name given to the ghostly looking horse figure often brought door-to-door between Christmas and New Year’s Eve in Wales. Typically constructed of a horse skull, a white sheet, and adorned with colorful ribbons and bells, the Mari Lwyd is carried around Welsh towns by singing revelers who challenge their neighbors to a battle of wits through poetry. Atlas Obscura explains that despite often being associated with Christmas, Mari Lwyd is actually a pre-Christian practice, and some Welsh towns choose instead to parade their horse skulls on other days, such as Halloween or May Day. However, the Christmas season is the most popular time for Mari Lwyd, and the practice often includes wassailing, which involves the drinking of a boozy, sugared-and-spiced ale.

8. Austria and German-speaking Alpine region // Krampus, the Christmas Devil

Krampus characters parade on St Nicholas' day
Krampus characters parade on St Nicholas' day in Italy
dario_tommaseo/iStock via Getty Images

While well-behaved children in Austria and elsewhere look forward to St. Nicholas rewarding them with presents and sweets, those on the naughty list live in fear of Krampus. Part demon and part goat, Krampus is a “bad Santa” devil-like figure with origins in pagan celebrations of the winter solstice. Later, Krampus became a part of Christian traditions alongside the celebrating of St. Nick. During Krampusnacht, or “Krampus night,” right before St. Nicholas Day, adults dress up as Krampus, and Krampus might also be seen on a Krampuslauf—literally a “Krampus run.” He also appears on Christmas cards throughout Austria, and enjoys a long-held place in the country’s holiday traditions, as well as in other German-speaking areas near the Alps.

9. Iceland // The Yule Cat

Iceland has its own frightening Christmas figure, the Yule cat, which lurks in the snow and waits to devour anyone who has not received new clothes to wear for Christmas. National Geographic did some digging into the origins of this tradition, and notes that in Icelandic rural societies employers often rewarded members of their households with new clothes and sheepskin shoes each year as a way to encourage everyone to work hard in the lead-up to Christmas. “To this day Icelanders still find it important to wear new clothes on Christmas Eve when the celebrations begin,” the website writes. So, basically, the Yule cat punishes the lazy by devouring them, though, as National Geographic observes, “According to some tales, the Yule Cat only eats their food and presents, not the actual people.” Whew!

10. Greenland // Whale Blubber Dinner

Although women around the world have often traditionally prepared the Christmas meal, in Greenland the men serve the women. The main dish is mattak, strips of whale blubber, as well as kiviak, flesh from auks buried in sealskin for several months and then served once it begins to decompose. Dessert is a little more familiar: Christmas porridge garnished with butter, cinnamon, and sugar.

11. Italy // Befana, the Christmas Witch

Befana, the Christmas witch of Italy
Befana, the Christmas witch of Italy
corradobarattaphotos, iStock via Getty Images

Like Austria’s Krampus, Italy’s Christmas witch, Befana, is scary-looking—she has the warts and the sharp nose of the typical witch depiction—and yet every January 5 she leaves gifts and sweets for the good children. Of course, she also leaves coal for the naughty ones. According to legend, she swoops up the particularly bad children and brings them home to her child-eating husband. According to Vice, Italy honors Befana with festivals each year, complete with market stalls, raffles, games, and prizes. Children also write letters to Befana just as they do to Santa Claus.

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