10 Fun Things in the American Museum of Natural History's Memorabilia Collection

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Erin McCarthy

Everyone knows that New York City’s American Museum of Natural History has incredible collections of everything from dinosaur fossils and bioluminescent fish specimens to ancient Chinese robes and meteorites to hippo skulls and rare books. But what people maybe don’t realize is that the museum has a unit—the Research Library’s Memorabilia Collection—devoted to cataloguing its own history, including scientific equipment, old exhibits, and the personal collections of notable contributors to the museum. The Memorabilia Collection is housed in an off-the-beaten path section of the building near one of the museum’s rare book rooms. Tom Baione, Harold Boeschenstein Director of the Department of Library Services, let us poke around—under close supervision, of course.

1. Vintage Cameras

When you first enter the Memorabilia Room, you notice almost an entire row of shelves devoted to vintage camera equipment, including some large format cameras, and viewfinders. Much of it still works!

2. Lemur Bust

This bust of a “lemuroid primate” came from a long closed exhibit created by a museum curator, William King Gregory, called “Our Face from Fish to Man” (Gregory also wrote a book on the subject). The display—which went up in 1929 and would definitely not be considered accurate or politically correct today—included a number of busts, starting with a Devonian shark and ending with the bust of an “Australian bushman” and, finally, the head of a classic "Greek Athlete," which can also be seen in the Memorabilia Room.

Like most objects in the Memorabilia Collection, the bust is stored in a custom box constructed for it in the Library’s Conservation Lab.

3. Radiolarian Model

This beautiful model of a Radiolarian—tiny protozoa, found in the ocean, that come in a wide variety of shapes—was made by a glass blower at the museum. Written on the inside of the box is "Haeckel," for Ernst Haeckel, a scientist who published a book on these organisms in 1862, and the person for whom this species is named.

3. Microscopes

A collection of vintage microscopes were left to the museum in 2009 by Ronald Wilkinson, a Washington DC-based collector of rare books and scientific equipment. To avoid having to lift the delicate scopes out of the boxes, the museum’s conservators built some boxes with transparent removable front panels: simply have a look, or lift off the top and slide the front up and out.

4. Plaster Hadrosaur and Stegosaurus

Think of a dinosaur—any dinosaur. Chances are the image you’re conjuring up in your mind was drawn by famous dino illustrator Charles Knight, who worked at the museum in the late 1800s and early 1900s. He made these models of a Hadrosaur and a Stegosaurus out of plaster during that time.

A number of Knight’s paintings from the late 1800s and early 1900s also recently made it to the museum’s collection. They were mounted on thick artist’s board that contained acid, which was leaching into the paintings; the museum’s conservator painstakingly shaved off the board, then used an ultrasonic welder to seal the artwork in layers of mylar for protection.

6. Planetarium Pieces

The original Hayden Planetarium, designed by the New York City-based architects Samuel Breck Parkman Trowbridge and Goodhue Livingston (they also designed the Stock Exchange!), opened in 1935; it was dismantled in 1997 to make room for a new, state-of-the-art facility, which opened in 2000. The museum saved some very distinctive art deco wall sconces and architectural fragments to document the building—including pieces of the exterior stonework from the old planetarium—and stored them in the Memorabilia Collection.

7. Polar Bear Diorama

In the early- to mid-1900s, the Museum had a School Services Department that took things like this miniature polar bear diorama to public schools (objects, photographs, and lantern slides went out on loan, too; you can see one of the trucks they went out on for delivery here).

This diorama has both a front and a top window for more natural light; Baione believes these little traveling dioramas were created in-house.

8. Uncle Cosmo Signage

When the museum was renovating to put in the new Hayden Planetarium, workers discovered a false wall. Behind it was an old sign, featuring a character called Uncle Cosmo, that invited visitors to learn what they would weigh on other planets in the “Your Weight on Other Worlds” exhibit. Today, visitors to the museum can still step on scales in the planetarium to find out what they’d weigh on “other worlds.”

9. Plaster Model of Chrysalis

The museum’s most famous naturalist and taxidermist, Carl Akeley, sculpted this plaster model of a man—who resembled Akeley—emerging from a gorilla. The resulting bronze statue, Chrysalis, was initially refused a place at the National Academy of Design (which had commissioned it) on the grounds that it lacked merit, according to the New York Times. Chrysalis was instead unveiled at the West Side Unitarian Church during its “Evolution Day” in April 1924. Akeley spoke at the unveiling, stating that “his purpose in creating the statue was not to depict humans as ascending from beasts, but rather to defend the gorilla and other animals against the charge that they were somehow ‘bestial.’” Akeley died just two years later in Africa working to save the mountain gorilla; the bronze statue can now be found at Chicago’s Field Museum.

10. Seed Pod

It’s not just glass and plaster models and old equipment in the Memorabilia Collection. There are also things like a monkey seed pod—again, in a custom-made box—which doesn’t smell very good. Baione guesses that the pod was once part of an exhibit, and since it was in good condition, it was retained and made its way to the Memorabilia Collection.

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June 19, 2014 - 11:00am
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