13 Facts About the American Museum of Natural History
By Emily Petsko
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.
The American Museum of Natural History used to be located in Central Park.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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).
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.
… And get married there, too.
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.
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.’”