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Hannah Keyser
Hannah Keyser

11 Awesome Things You Can See At The Explorers Club

Hannah Keyser
Hannah Keyser

The Explorers Club headquarters on East 70th Street might be New York'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 up 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 passersby, 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, Lacey Flint.

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—which was how it was spared a violent end.

2. Dowager Empress Chair

In the same room as the table above 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 Henson, who became the first African American admitted to the Club in 1937, was Robert Peary's first mate on a number of arctic explorations, including the one recognized as the first to reach the geographic North Pole. The Club displays sealskin mittens with polar bear 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 prove that early South Americans could have originally settled the islands of the South Pacific as far back as 500 AD. Heyerdahl set sail with a 5-man crew from Peru aboard a raft, called the Kon-Tiki, made of balsa logs and other indigenous materials and techniques consistent with what would have been available at that time. One hundred and one days and 4300 miles later, the team landed in Polynesia. The 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 the arctic reaches of Canada. The so-called Lady Franklin Bay Expedition made numerous scientific contributions and observations, reaching farther north than anyone before them. However, during the expedition, heavy ice stranded the explorers and prevented relief vessels from reaching them for several 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, suicide, and even execution. And, in the aftermath, the survivors were plagued by rumors of cannibalism.

The painting, commissioned by the U.S. government to hang in the Capitol Building, 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 $105.00.

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 traditionally 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 one that has been to similar locations or was carried by an idol. 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

Or, more accurately put, "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 antelope. To substantiate this claim, he had a local villager help to 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 the collection of observations and research which were 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 few more pictures. Definitely call or email ahead if you're hoping for a peek—these first editions require white gloves and supervision for handling.

10. Double Elephant Tusk

These four tusks all belonged to the same elephant, a fearsome looking rare genetic mutation. 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 know 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.

All photos courtesy of Hannah Keyser

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Penn Vet Working Dog Center
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
New Program Trains Dogs to Sniff Out Art Smugglers
Penn Vet Working Dog Center
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

Soon, the dogs you see sniffing out contraband at airports may not be searching for drugs or smuggled Spanish ham. They might be looking for stolen treasures.

K-9 Artifact Finders, a new collaboration between New Hampshire-based cultural heritage law firm Red Arch and the University of Pennsylvania, is training dogs to root out stolen antiquities looted from archaeological sites and museums. The dogs would be stopping them at borders before the items can be sold elsewhere on the black market.

The illegal antiquities trade nets more than $3 billion per year around the world, and trafficking hits countries dealing with ongoing conflict, like Syria and Iraq today, particularly hard. By one estimate, around half a million artifacts were stolen from museums and archaeological sites throughout Iraq between 2003 and 2005 alone. (Famously, the craft-supply chain Hobby Lobby was fined $3 million in 2017 for buying thousands of ancient artifacts looted from Iraq.) In Syria, the Islamic State has been known to loot and sell ancient artifacts including statues, jewelry, and art to fund its operations.

But the problem spans across the world. Between 2007 and 2016, U.S. Customs and Border Control discovered more than 7800 cultural artifacts in the U.S. looted from 30 different countries.

A yellow Lab sniffs a metal cage designed to train dogs on scent detection.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

K-9 Artifact Finders is the brainchild of Rick St. Hilaire, the executive director of Red Arch. His non-profit firm researches cultural heritage property law and preservation policy, including studying archaeological site looting and antiquities trafficking. Back in 2015, St. Hilaire was reading an article about a working dog trained to sniff out electronics that was able to find USB drives, SD cards, and other data storage devices. He wondered, if dogs could be trained to identify the scents of inorganic materials that make up electronics, could they be trained to sniff out ancient pottery?

To find out, St. Hilaire tells Mental Floss, he contacted the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, a research and training center for detection dogs. In December 2017, Red Arch, the Working Dog Center, and the Penn Museum (which is providing the artifacts to train the dogs) launched K-9 Artifact Finders, and in late January 2018, the five dogs selected for the project began their training, starting with learning the distinct smell of ancient pottery.

“Our theory is, it is a porous material that’s going to have a lot more odor than, say, a metal,” says Cindy Otto, the executive director of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center and the project’s principal investigator.

As you might imagine, museum curators may not be keen on exposing fragile ancient materials to four Labrador retrievers and a German shepherd, and the Working Dog Center didn’t want to take any risks with the Penn Museum’s priceless artifacts. So instead of letting the dogs have free rein to sniff the materials themselves, the project is using cotton balls. The researchers seal the artifacts (broken shards of Syrian pottery) in airtight bags with a cotton ball for 72 hours, then ask the dogs to find the cotton balls in the lab. They’re being trained to disregard the smell of the cotton ball itself, the smell of the bag it was stored in, and ideally, the smell of modern-day pottery, eventually being able to zero in on the smell that distinguishes ancient pottery specifically.

A dog looks out over the metal "pinhweel" training mechanism.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

“The dogs are responding well,” Otto tells Mental Floss, explaining that the training program is at the stage of "exposing them to the odor and having them recognize it.”

The dogs involved in the project were chosen for their calm-but-curious demeanors and sensitive noses (one also works as a drug-detection dog when she’s not training on pottery). They had to be motivated enough to want to hunt down the cotton balls, but not aggressive or easily distracted.

Right now, the dogs train three days a week, and will continue to work on their pottery-detection skills for the first stage of the project, which the researchers expect will last for the next nine months. Depending on how the first phase of the training goes, the researchers hope to be able to then take the dogs out into the field to see if they can find the odor of ancient pottery in real-life situations, like in suitcases, rather than in a laboratory setting. Eventually, they also hope to train the dogs on other types of objects, and perhaps even pinpoint the chemical signatures that make artifacts smell distinct.

Pottery-sniffing dogs won’t be showing up at airport customs or on shipping docks soon, but one day, they could be as common as drug-sniffing canines. If dogs can detect low blood sugar or find a tiny USB drive hidden in a house, surely they can figure out if you’re smuggling a sculpture made thousands of years ago in your suitcase.

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ERIC FEFERBERG, AFP/Getty Images
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olympics
9 Scandals that Rocked the Figure Skating World
ERIC FEFERBERG, AFP/Getty Images
ERIC FEFERBERG, AFP/Getty Images

Don't let the ornate costumes and beautiful choreography fool you, figure skaters are no strangers to scandal. Here are nine notable ones.

1. TONYA AND NANCY.

Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding
Pascal Rondeau, ALLSPORT/Getty Images

In 1994, a little club-and-run thrust the sport of figure skating into the spotlight. The assault on reigning national champion Nancy Kerrigan (and her subsequent anguished cries) at the 1994 U.S. National Figure Skating Championships in Detroit was heard round the world, as were the allegations that her main rival, Tonya Harding, may have been behind it all.

The story goes a little something like this: As America's sweetheart (Kerrigan) is preparing to compete for a spot on the U.S. Olympic team bound for Lillehammer, Norway, she gets clubbed in the knee outside the locker room after practice. Kerrigan is forced to withdraw from competition and Harding gets the gold. Details soon emerge that Harding's ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly, was behind the attack (he hired a hitman). Harding denies any knowledge or involvement, but tanks at the Olympics the following month. She then pleads guilty to hindering prosecution of Gillooly and his co-conspirators, bodyguard Shawn Eckhart and hitman Shane Stant. And then she's banned from figure skating for life.

Questions about Harding's guilt remain two decades later, and the event is still a topic of conversation today. Recently, both an ESPN 30 for 30 documentary and the Oscar-nominated film I, Tonya revisited the saga, proving we can't get enough of a little figure skating scandal.

2. HAND-PICKED FOR GOLD.

Mirai Nagasu and Ashley Wagner at the podium
Jared Wickerham, Getty Images

Usually it's the top three medalists at the U.S. Nationals that compete for America at the Winter Olympics every four years. But in 2014, gold medalist Gracie Gold (no pun intended), silver medalist Polina Edmunds, and ... "pewter" medalist Ashley Wagner were destined for Sochi.

What about the bronze medalist, you ask? Mirai Nagasu, despite out-skating Wagner by a landslide in Boston and despite being the only skater with prior Olympic experience (she placed fourth at Vancouver in 2010) had to watch it all on television. The decision by the country's governing body of figure skating (United States Figure Skating Association, or USFS) deeply divided the skating community as to whether it was the right choice to pass over Nagasu in favor of Wagner, who hadn't skated so great, and it put a global spotlight on the selection process.

In reality, the athletes that we send to the Olympics are not chosen solely on their performance at Nationals—it's one of many criteria taken into consideration, including performance in international competition over the previous year, difficulty of each skater's technical elements, and, to some degree, their marketability to a world audience. This has happened before to other skaters—most notably Michelle Kwan was relegated to being an alternate in 1994 after Nancy Kerrigan was granted a medical bye after the leg-clubbing heard round the world. Nagasu had the right to appeal the decision, and was encouraged to do so by mobs of angry skating fans, but she elected not to.

3. SALT LAKE CITY, 2002.

Pairs skaters Jamie Sale and David Pelletier of Canada and Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze of Russia perform in the figure skating exhibition during the Salt Lake City Winter Olympic Games at the Salt Lake Ice Center in Salt Lake City, Utah
Brian Bahr, Getty Images

Objectively, this scandal rocked the skating world the hardest, because the end result was a shattering of the competitive sport's very structure. When Canadian pairs team Jamie Sale and David Pelletier found themselves in second place after a flawless freeskate at the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake, something wasn't right. The Russian team of Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze placed first, despite a technically flawed performance.

An investigation into the result revealed that judges had conspired to fix the results of the pairs and dance events—a French judge admitted to being pressured to vote for the Russian pair in exchange for a boost for the French dance team (who won that event). In the end, both pairs teams were awarded a gold medal, and the entire system of judging figure skating competition was thrown out and rebuilt.

4. AGENT OF STYLE.

Jackson Haines was an American figure skater in the mid-1800s who had some crazy ideas about the sport. He had this absolutely ludicrous notion of skating to music (music!), waltzing on ice, as well as incorporating balletic movements, athletic jumps, and spins into competition. His brand new style of skating was in complete contrast to the rigid, traditional, and formal (read: awkward) standard of tracing figure-eights into the ice. Needless to say, it was not well received by the skating world in America, so he was forced to take his talents to the Old World.

His new “international style” did eventually catch on around the globe, and Haines is now hailed as the father of modern figure skating. He also invented the sit spin, a technical element now required in almost every level and discipline of the sport.

5. LADIES LAST.

In 1902, competitive figure skating was a gentlemen's pursuit. Ladies simply didn't compete by themselves on the world stage (though they did compete in pairs events). But a British skater named Madge Syers flouted that standard, entering the World Figure Skating Championships in 1902. She ruffled a lot of feathers, but was ultimately allowed to compete and beat the pants off every man save one, earning the silver medal.

Her actions sparked a controversy that spurred the International Skating Union to create a separate competitive world event for women in 1906. Madge went on to win that twice, and became Olympic champion at the 1908 summer games [PDF] in London—the first “winter” Olympics weren't held until 1924 in France, several years after Madge died in 1917.

6. AGENT OF STYLE, PART 2.

A picture of Norwegian figure skater Sonja Henie
Keystone/Getty Images

Norwegian skater Sonja Henie was the darling of the figure skating world in the first half of the 20th century. The flirtatious blonde was a three-time Olympic champion, a movie star, and the role model of countless aspiring skaters. She brought sexy back to skating—or rather, introduced it. She was the first skater to wear scandalously short skirts and white skates. Prior to her bold fashion choices, ladies wore black skates and long, conservative skirts. During WWII, a fabric shortage hiked up the skirts even further than Henie's typical length, and the ladies of figure skating have never looked back.

7. TOO SEXY FOR HER SKATES.

Katarina Witt displaying her gold medal
DANIEL JANIN, AFP/Getty Images

A buxom young beauty from the former Democratic German Republic dominated ladies figure skating in the mid- to late 1980s. A two-time Olympic champion, and one of the most decorated female skaters in history, Katarina Witt was just too sexy for her shirt—she tended to wear scandalously revealing costumes (one of which resulted in a wardrobe malfunction during a show), and was criticized for attempting to flirt with the judges to earn higher scores.

The ISU put the kibosh on the controversial outfits soon afterward, inserting a rule that all competitive female skaters “must not give the effect of excessive nudity inappropriate for an athletic sport.” The outrage forced Witt to add some fabric to her competitive outfits in the late '80s. But 10 years later she took it all off, posing naked for a 1998 issue of Playboy.

8. MORE COSTUME CONTROVERSY.

For the 2010 competitive year, the ISU's annual theme for the original dance segment (since defunct and replaced by the “short dance”) was “country/folk.” That meant competitors had to create a routine that explored some aspect of it, in both music and costume as well as in maneuvers. The top Russian pair chose to emulate Aboriginal tribal dancing in their program, decked in full bodysuits adorned with their interpretation of Aboriginal body paint (and a loincloth).

Their debut performance at the European Championships drew heavy criticism from Aboriginal groups in both Australia and Canada, who were greatly offended by the inaccuracy of the costumes and the routine. The Russian pair, Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin, were quick to dial down the costumes and dial up the accuracy in time for the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, but the judges were not impressed. They ended up with the bronze, ending decades of Russian dominance in the discipline. (With the glaring exception of 2002, of course.)

9. IN MEMORIAM.

While not a scandal, this event bears mentioning because it has rocked the figure skating world arguably more than anything else. In February of 1961, the American figure skating team boarded a flight to Belgium from New York, en route to the World Championships in Prague. The plane went down mysteriously (cause still questioned today) as it tried to land in Brussels, killing all 72 passengers. America's top skaters and coaches had been aboard, including nine-time U.S. Champion and Olympic bronze medalist-turned-coach Maribel Vinson-Owen and her daughter Laurence Owen, a 16-year-old who had been heavily favored to win the ladies event that year.

The ISU canceled the competition upon the news of the crash and the United States lost its long-held dominance in the sport for almost a decade. The United States Figure Skating Association (USFS) soon after established a memorial fund that helped support the skating careers of competitors in need of financial assistance, including future Olympic champions like Scott Hamilton and Peggy Fleming.

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