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.


12 Amazing Facts About Catherine the Great

Catherine the Great moved to a foreign land as a teenager and became one of the most important leaders in its history. During her 34-year reign, she transformed Russia’s culture while expanding its borders. Here's what you need to know about the unlikely ruler, who is the subject of not one, but two series: HBO's Catherine the Great, which debuts on October 21, 2019, and Hulu's The Great, slated for 2020.

  1. Catherine the Great's name wasn't Catherine.

The woman who would become Catherine the Great was born Sophie Friederike Auguste von Anhalt-Zerbst on April 21, 1729 (Julian Calendar) in Stettin, Prussia (now Szczecin, Poland). She was the daughter of Christian August, a minor German prince and general in the Prussian army, and Princess Johanna Elisabeth, who had connections to the Russian royal family.

Despite being a princess herself, young Sophie wasn’t exactly a top-tier member of the European nobility. But thanks to her mother’s campaigning, she was chosen to marry Karl Peter Ulrich (later known as Tsar Peter III), heir to the Russian throne. The couple wed on August 21, 1745. Sophie converted to Russian Orthodoxy—despite her Lutheran father’s objections—and took on a new Russian name: Ekaterina, or “Catherine.” Her official title would be Empress Catherine II (Peter the Great's second wife had been Empress Catherine I).

  1. Catherine the Great's marriage to Peter the III was rocky.

Catherine and Peter were an ill-matched pair: Catherine was bright and ambitious whereas Peter, according to Britannica, was "mentally feeble." Catherine didn’t like him: “Peter III had no greater enemy than himself; all his actions bordered on insanity,” she wrote in 1789. Her memoirs portray the Tsar as a drunk, a simpleton, and somebody who “took pleasure in beating men and animals.” Whether these statements are accurate or not, Catherine and her spouse were clearly unhappy, and they both had extramarital affairs. Catherine had at least three affairs, and hinted that none of her children were her husband's.

  1. Catherine the Great overthrew Peter the III so that she could rule.

Peter III assumed the throne on January 5, 1762, and was immediately unpopular. He enraged the military by pulling out of the Seven Years’ War and making big concessions to Russia’s adversaries in the process.

Eventually, Catherine believed that Peter was going to divorce her—so she worked with her lover, Grigory Grigoryevich Orlov, and her other allies to overthrow him and take the throne for herself. In July 1762, just six months after he took the throne, Peter III was deposed in a coup d'état. Eight days later, he was killed while in the custody of one of Catherine's co-conspirators.

With Peter out of the picture, Catherine became the new empress of Russia. She was formally crowned on September 22, 1762. She never married again, and took numerous lovers during her long reign.

  1. Voltaire was basically Catherine the Great's pen pal.

Catherine, a bibliophile, built up a collection of 44,000 books. Early in her reign, she began a correspondence with one of her favorite authors: The great Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire. Russia fascinated Voltaire, who had written a biography of Peter the Great. Catherine would never get the chance to meet him in person, but through these letters, she and Voltaire discussed everything from disease prevention to Catherine's love of English gardens.

  1. Catherine the Great annexed Crimea.

Russian interest in the Crimean Peninsula long predates Vladimir Putin. After the Russo-Turkish War of 1768 to 1774, Catherine seized the landmass, thus strengthening Russia’s presence on the Black Sea. And her conquests didn’t end there. Over 200,000 square miles of new territory was added to the Russian empire during Catherine’s rule. Much of it was acquired when the once-independent nation of Poland was divided between Austria, Prussia, and Russia. Tsarina Catherine’s slice contained portions of modern-day Lithuania, Latvia, and Ukraine.

An illustration of Catherine the Great.
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  1. Great Britain asked for Catherine the Great's help when the Revolutionary War broke out.

In 1775, the Earl of Dartmouth approached Catherine with a request for 20,000 Russian troops to help Britain put down the colonial rebellion in America. She refused. As the war continued, British diplomats kept trying to establish an alliance with Russia, hoping that the Empress would either send military aid or, failing that, pressure France into abandoning the American cause. Catherine did neither. However, out of concern for Russian shipping interests in the Atlantic (and elsewhere), she did attempt to mediate an end to the violence between Britain and its rebellious colonies in 1780.

  1. Alaska was colonized on Catherine the Great's watch.

Russian explorers had been visiting Alaska since 1741, but the empire didn’t set up its first permanent colony there until 1784, when merchant Grigory Shelikhov sailed to Kodiak Island and established the Three Saints Bay Colony. Later, in 1788, he visited Catherine in St. Petersburg and asked if she’d give his company a monopoly over the area’s lucrative fur trade. She denied his request, but thanked the explorer for “[discovering] new lands and peoples for the benefit of the state.” Russia’s colonial presence in North America would continue long after Catherine’s death—and it wasn’t limited to Alaska.

  1. Catherine the Great embraced inoculation.

Thomas Dimsdale, an English physician, built upon an existing technique for immunizing people to smallpox. The technique involved finding a carrier of the ailment, then taking a blade dipped in a very, very small amount of "the unripe, crude or watery matter" from that person's pustules and injecting it into the patient’s body. In 18th century Russia, smallpox claimed millions of lives, so Catherine was eager to see if Dimsdale’s strategy worked. At her invitation, he came to Russia and quietly inoculated the empress. The procedure was a success, and with the Tsarina’s encouragement, Dimsdale inoculated about 150 members of the nobility. Before the end of the century, approximately 2 million Russians had received smallpox inoculations.

  1. A rebel claimed to be Catherine the Great's dead husband.

Catherine’s Enlightenment-fueled beliefs didn't lead to the demise of serfdom. According to Marc Raeff in his book Catherine the Great: A Profile, "During her reign it was possible to buy and sell serfs with or without land, buy whole families or individuals, transact sales on the estate or marketplace; contemporaries termed all this ‘veritable slavery.'”

The unjust arrangement triggered 160 documented peasant uprisings in the first 10 years of Catherine’s reign. The best known of them was Pugachev’s Rebellion (1773-1775) [PDF], which was organized by Yemelyan Pugachev, a veteran of the Russo-Turkish wars. To win support, he introduced himself as Catherine’s deposed and deceased spouse, Peter III (even though Pugachev looked nothing like Peter). Pugachev and his followers enjoyed some big military victories early on, but after a crushing defeat in August 1774, their revolution fell apart. Pugachev was captured and executed in Moscow on January 10, 1775.

  1. Catherine the Great's art collection was the basis of St. Petersburg's State Hermitage Museum.

In 1764, Catherine purchased a set of 225 paintings—including works by Rembrandt and Frans Hals—from a Berlin dealer, and founded the Hermitage with those works. Catherine went on to buy or commission thousands of additional pieces for her budding museum. Today, the State Hermitage Museum has more than 3 million items in its collections.

  1. Catherine the Great was Russia's longest-serving female leader.

Thirty-four years after assuming the throne, Catherine passed away on November 6, 1796. The monarch was succeeded by her son, Tsar Paul I.

  1. Wild rumors flew after Catherine the Great's death—including that one about the horse.

A lot of rumors sprung up in the wake of Catherin's death. One said that she had died while on the toilet, while another—the most persistent tale, and a completely unfounded one—claimed that Catherine the Great was crushed to death while attempting to have sex with a stallion. Where exactly the story came from is unknown; an autopsy determined that the empress had actually died of a cerebral stroke.

10 Facts About the Beastie Boys's 'Sabotage' Video

Beastie Boys via YouTube
Beastie Boys via YouTube

With their raucous mix of rock and hip-hop, the Beastie Boys were a band everyone could love. They also made killer music videos, and their 1994 video for “Sabotage” is arguably one of the greatest in the history of the medium. Directed by Spike Jonze and inspired by ‘70s cop shows, “Sabotage” finds the Beasties in cheesy suits, wigs, and mustaches, cavorting around L.A. like a bunch of bootleg Starskys and Hutches. If you were alive in the ‘90s, you’ve seen “Sabotage” a million times, but there’s a lot you might not know about this iconic video.

1. It all began with a photo shoot.

Spike Jonze met the Beastie Boys when he photographed them for Dirt magazine in the early 1990s. The band showed up with its own concept. “For years, Beastie Boy Adam Horovitz had been talking about doing a photo session as undercover cops—wearing ties and fake mustaches and sitting in a car like we were on a stakeout,” Adam “MCA” Yauch told New York Magazine. Jonze loved the idea so much he tagged along when the Beasties went wig shopping. “Then, while he was taking the pictures, he was wearing this blond wig and mustache the whole time,” Yauch said. “For no apparent reason.” So was born a friendship that begat “Sabotage.”

2. Spike Jonze filmed “Sabotage” without permits.

The Beasties weren’t big fans of high-budget music videos with tons of people on the set. So they asked Jonze to hire a couple of assistants and run the whole production out of a van. “Then we just ran around L.A. without any permits and made everything up as we went along,” MCA told New York. They’re lucky the real cops never showed up.

3. The Beastie Boys did all their own stunt driving.

After binge-watching VHS tapes of The Streets of San Francisco and other ‘70s cop shows, the Beasties knew they needed some sweet chase scenes. “We bought a car that was about to die,” Mike D told Vanity Fair. “We just drove the car ourselves. We almost killed the car a couple of times, but we definitely didn’t come close to killing ourselves.”

4. “Sabotage” inspired the opening sequence of Trainspotting.

Danny Boyle's 1996 film Trainspotting famously opens with Ewan McGregor and his buddies running through the streets of Edinburgh to the tune of Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life.” In the DVD commentary, Boyle revealed that the scene was inspired by “Sabotage.”

5. Two cameras were harmed in the making of “Sabotage.”

“Sabotage” was supposed to be a low-budget affair—and it would’ve been, had Jonze been a little more careful with his rented cameras. He destroyed a Canon Scoopic when the Ziploc bag he used to protect the camera during an underwater shot proved less than airtight. He apparently told the rental agency the camera stopped working on its own, but he wasn’t as lucky when an Arriflex SR3 fell out of a van window. That cost $84,000, effectively tripling the cost of the video.

6. MCA crashed the stage of the MTV Video Music Awards to protest “Sabotage” being shut out.

At the 1994 MTV VMAs, “Sabotage” was nominated for five awards, including Video of the Year. In one of the great injustices of all time, it lost in all five categories. When R.E.M.’s “Everybody Hurts” won Best Direction, MCA invaded the stage dressed as Nathanial Hörnblowér, his Swiss uncle/filmmaker alter-ego. “Since I was a small boy, I had dreamed that Spike would win this,” MCA said as a confused Michael Stipe looked on. “Now this has happened, and I want to tell everyone this is a farce, and I had the ideas for Star Wars and everything.”

7. There’s a “Sabotage” comic book you can download for free.

After MCA’s death in 2012, artist Derek Langille created a seven-page “Sabotage” comic book in tribute to the fallen musician and filmmaker. You can download it for free here.

8. There’s also a “Sabotage” novel.

To celebrate the 25th anniversary of “Sabotage,” Oakland-based author and Beasties super-fan Jeff Gomez wrote a five-act novel inspired by the video. He spent months researching cop movies and real-life police lingo, and he watched “Sabotage” about 100 times, keeping a detailed spreadsheet of all the action unfolding onscreen. “They created a really great universe, and I just wanted to play around in it for a little bit,” Gomez told PBS.

9. There’s a “Sabotage”/Sesame Street mashup on YouTube.

In 2017, YouTuber Is This How You Go Viral, a.k.a. Adam Schleichkorn, created the video “Sesametage,” a reimagining of “Sabotage” made with edited bits of Sesame Street. It stars Big Bird as himself, The Count as Cochese, and Oscar the Grouch as Bobby, “The Rookie.” Super Grover, Telly, Cookie Monster, and Bert and Ernie also turn up in this hilarious spoof of a spoof.

10. “Sabotage” nearly became a movie—kind of.

Jonze and the Beasties had such a blast making “Sabotage” that they wrote a script for a feature film called We Can Do This. The movie, which they later abandoned, was set to feature MCA in two roles: Sir Stuart Wallace, one of his “Sabotage” characters, and Nathaniel Hörnblowér (whom he portrayed during that 1994 VMAs protest). Jonze told IndieWire the film would’ve been “ridiculous and fun,” which sounds like the understatement of the century. “There were no 1970s cops in it, but it was definitely in the same spirit,” he said.

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