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.’”

12 Quirky Books for Imaginative Kids

Simon & Schuster
Simon & Schuster

Though childhood classics like A.A. Milne's Winnie the Pooh and Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are never truly go out of style, each year brings a new cache of funny and fantastical books that will feed the expanding imaginations of young readers everywhere. From a self-conscious sewer monster who wants to make friends to a gluttonous dinosaur who gobbled up Christmas, this guide has the perfect quirky story for every kind of kid on your holiday gift list.

1. Rumple Buttercup // Matthew Gray Gubler ($9)

This whimsical tale about a self-conscious sewer monster is written and illustrated by Criminal Minds star, and king of quirk, Matthew Gray Gubler. While cute characters and a simple message about embracing your individuality make it a great gift for very young kids, its absurdist humor makes it a laugh-out-loud read for older kids and adults, too.

Buy it: Amazon

2. President Taft Is Stuck in the Bath // Mac Barnett ($8)

president taft is stuck in the bath
Candlewick/Amazon

Mac Barnett’s good-natured retelling of William Howard Taft’s infamous (though unconfirmed) bathtub blunder teaches children two things. One, history is far from a tedious list of names, dates, laws, and battles. And two, even the most stately world leaders have embarrassing moments.

Buy it: Amazon

3. It’s Only Stanley // Jon Agee ($15)

it's only stanley book
Dial Books/Amazon

When strange noises wake the Wimbledon family at night, they assume their dog Stanley is cleaning or fixing something; in reality, Stanley is transforming their house into a rocket ship that will carry them to an alien-inhabited planet. Fans of The Secret Life of Pets and Phineas and Ferb’s Perry the Platypus will love this rhyming read-aloud (and surely wonder what their own pet is up to when they’re not around).

Buy it: Amazon

4. Frankie Sparks and the Big Sled Challenge // Megan Frazer Blakemore ($6)

frankie sparks and the big sled challenge
Aladdin/Amazon

Third-grade inventor Frankie Sparks is back for the third book in her STEM-inspired series, and this time, she’s about to learn that the hardest part about creating a competition-winning sled is less about sled-building and more about team-building. Great for elementary school kids who love to create anything—be it art or architecture—as well as anyone who’s ever had to work on a group project.

Buy it: Amazon

5. The Pigeon HAS to Go to School! // Mo Willems ($10)

the pigeon has to go to school
Hyperion Books/Amazon

Mo Willems’s original pigeon book was Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!, a thoroughly riotous, award-winning tale about a pigeon trying to convince readers to let it drive the bus when the bus driver asked them not to. In the latest story, the headstrong pigeon pivots to something it very much does not want to do—go to school. It sends a message about the value of doing things you don’t want to do, but, most importantly, it’s also really funny.

Buy it: Amazon

6. The Glass Town Game // Catherynne M. Valente ($11)

the glass town game
Simon & Schuster/Amazon

Catherynne M. Valente spins a riveting fictional tale from the true story of Charlotte, Emily, Anne, and Branwell Brontë’s childhood in a Yorkshire parsonage, where they passed the time dreaming up an intricate fantasy land populated with toy soldiers. In Valente’s novel, the fantasy land comes to life, complete with whale-sized flies, Champagne flutes that play music, and fire-breathing porcelain roosters, and the siblings must use all their wit and imagination to figure out how to get home. It’s a little like Alice in Wonderland meets The Chronicles of Narnia, and perfect for fans of both.

Buy it: Amazon

7. Lambslide // Ann Patchett ($13)

lambslide
HarperCollins/Amazon

The internationally bestselling author of Bel Canto and Commonwealth is just as clever when it comes to writing for kids. In Lambslide, a group of lambs mistakenly hear lambslide instead of landslide and begin a farm-wide campaign for an actual slide for lambs. With quaint illustrations, endearing characters, and an engaging plot, this is the type of book that ends up in the family for generations.

Buy it: Amazon

8. The Book With No Pictures // B.J. Novak ($9)

The Office alum B.J. Novak turns storytime into a full-fledged comedic performance with The Book With No Pictures, a book filled with nonsense words and phrases like blork and blaggity blaggity, which the reader has to read aloud. For parents, it’s a blueprint for embracing their silly side. For kids, it’s a chance to see their parents not seem so parental.

Buy it: Amazon

9. Spencer’s New Pet // Jessie Sima ($14)

spencer's new pet
Simon & Schuster/Amazon

The author of Not Quite Narwhal returns with another adorable story, this time about a boy who must avoid sharp objects in order to protect his balloon-animal pet dog. The mostly black-and-white illustrations (except for the dog, which is red) give Spencer’s New Pet a refreshingly old-fashioned feel, and the tale itself is sweet, evenly paced, and timeless.

Buy it: Amazon

10. Serafina and the Black Cloak // Robert Beatty ($8)

serafina and the black cloak
Disney-Hyperion/Amazon

When children begin disappearing from the Biltmore Estate, Serafina, who secretly lives in the basement, knows the culprit is a mysterious man in a black cloak who prowls the corridors at night. This novel has everything a quality middle-grade fantasy needs, including secret passageways, a forbidden forest, unknown magic, and a scrappy heroine. And the chills and thrills don’t stop at the end—it’s the first in a series of four (so far).

Buy it: Amazon

11. The Dinosaur That Pooped Christmas // Tom Fletcher and Dougie Poynter ($18)

the dinosaur that pooped christmas
Aladdin/Amazon

This jolly, strange story about a ravenous pet dinosaur who gobbles up all of Christmas is hilarious enough on its own—and perhaps even more so when you consider that it was written by British punk rockers Tom Fletcher and Dougie Poynter from the band McFly.

Buy it: Amazon

12. This Is a Taco! // Andrew Cangelose ($16)

this is a taco
Lion Forge/Amazon

A high-spirited, unique squirrel named Taco provides color commentary on regular squirrel facts in This Is a Taco!, a book that is much more than a factual guide to squirrels. In it, Taco embellishes, acts out, and sometimes completely changes the facts to be truer to his personal experience as a squirrel, which involves being opinionated and eating lots of tacos.

Buy it: Amazon

Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we choose all products independently and only get commission on items you buy and don't return, so we're only happy if you're happy. Thanks for helping us pay the bills!

16 Biting Facts About Fright Night

William Ragsdale stars in Fright Night (1985).
William Ragsdale stars in Fright Night (1985).
Columbia Pictures

Charley Brewster is your typical teen: he’s got a doting mom, a girlfriend whom he loves, a wacky best friend … and an enigmatic vampire living next door.

For more than 30 years, Tom Holland’s critically acclaimed directorial debut has been a staple of Halloween movie marathons everywhere. To celebrate the season, we dug through the coffins of the horror classic in order to discover some things you might not have known about Fright Night.

1. Fright Night was based on "The Boy Who Cried Wolf."

Or, in this case, "The Boy Who Cried Vampire." “I started to kick around the idea about how hilarious it would be if a horror movie fan thought that a vampire was living next door to him,” Holland told TVStoreOnline of the film’s genesis. “I thought that would be an interesting take on the whole Boy Who Cried Wolf thing. It really tickled my funny bone. I thought it was a charming idea, but I really didn't have a story for it.”

2. Peter Vincent made Fright Night click.

It wasn’t until Holland conceived of the character of Peter Vincent, the late-night horror movie host played by Roddy McDowall, that he really found the story. While discussing the idea with a department head at Columbia Pictures, Holland realized what The Boy Who Cried Vampire would do: “Of course, he's gonna go to Vincent Price!” Which is when the screenplay clicked. “The minute I had Peter Vincent, I had the story,” Holland told Dread Central. “Charley Brewster was the engine, but Peter Vincent was the heart.”

3. Peter Vincent is named after two horror icons.

Peter Cushing and Vincent Price.

4. The Peter Vincent role was intended for Vincent Price.

Roddy McDowall in Fright Night (1985)
Roddy McDowall as Peter Vincent in Fright Night (1985).
Columbia Pictures

“Now the truth is that when I first went out with it, I was thinking of Vincent Price, but Vincent Price was not physically well at the time,” Holland said.

5. Roddy McDowall did not want to play the part like Vincent Price.

Once he was cast, Roddy McDowall made the decision that Peter Vincent was nothing like Vincent Price—specifically: he was a terrible actor. “My part is that of an old ham actor,” McDowall told Monster Land magazine in 1985. “I mean a dreadful actor. He had a moderate success in an isolated film here and there, but all very bad product. Basically, he played one character for eight or 10 films, for which he probably got paid next to nothing. Unlike stars of horror films who are very good actors and played lots of different roles, such as Peter Lorre and Vincent Price or Boris Karloff, this poor sonofabitch just played the same character all the time, which was awful.”

6. It took Holland just three weeks to write the Fright Night script.

And he had a helluva good time doing it, too. “I couldn’t stop writing,” Holland said in 2008, during a Fright Night reunion at Fright Fest. “I wrote it in about three weeks. And I was laughing the entire time, literally on the floor, kicking my feet in the air in hysterics. Because there’s something so intrinsically humorous in the basic concept. So it was always, along with the thrills and chills, something there that tickled your funny bone. It wasn’t broad comedy, but it’s a grin all the way through.”

7. Tom Holland directed Fright Night out of "self-defense."

By the time Fright Night came around, Holland was already a Hollywood veteran—just not as a director. He had spent the past two decades as an actor and writer and he told the crowd at Fright Fest that “this was the first film where I had sufficient credibility in Hollywood to be able to direct ... I had a film after Psycho 2 and before Fright Night called Scream For Help, which … I thought was so badly directed that [directing Fright Night] was self-defense. In self-defense, I wanted to protect the material, and that’s why I started directing with Fright Night."

8. Chris Sarandon had a number of reasons for not wanting to make Fright Night.

Chris Sarandon stars in 'Fright Night' (1985)
Chris Sarandon stars in Fright Night (1985).
Columbia Pictures

At the Fright Night reunion, Chris Sarandon recalled his initial reaction to being approached about playing vampire Jerry Dandrige. "I was living in New York and I got the script,” he explained. “My agent said that someone was interested in the possibility of my doing the movie, and I said to myself, ‘There’s no way I can do a horror movie. I can’t do a vampire movie. I can’t do a movie with a first-time director.’ Not a first-time screenwriter, but first-time director. And I sat down and read the script, and I remember very vividly sitting at my desk, looked over at my then wife and said, ‘This is amazing. I don’t know. I have to meet this guy.’ And so, I came out to L.A. And I met with Tom [Holland] and our producer. And we just hit it off, and that was it.”

9. Jerry Dandridge is part fruit bat.

After doing some research into the history of vampires and the legends surrounding them, Sarandon decided that Jerry had some fruit bat in him, which is why he’s often seen snacking on fruit in the film. When asked about the 2011 remake with Colin Farrell, Sarandon commented on how much he appreciated that that specific tradition continued. “In this one, it's an apple, but in the original, Jerry ate all kinds of fruit because it was just sort of something I discovered by searching it—that most bats are not blood-sucking, but they're fruit bats,” Sarandon told io9. “And I thought well maybe somewhere in Jerry's genealogy, there's fruit bat in him, so that's why I did it.”

10. William Ragsdale learned he had booked the part of Charley Brewster on Halloween.

William Ragsdale had only ever appeared in one film before Fright Night (in a bit part). He had recently been considered for the role of Rocky Dennis in Mask, which “didn’t work out,” Ragsdale recalled. “But a few months later, [casting director] Jackie Burch tells me, ‘There’s this movie I’m casting. You might be really right for it.’ So, I had this 1976 Toyota Celica and I drove that through the San Joaquin valley desert for four or five trips down for auditioning. And in the last one, Stephen [Geoffreys] was there, Amanda [Bearse] was there and that’s when it happened. I had read the script and at the time I had been doing Shakespeare and Greek drama, so I read this thing and thought, ‘Well, God, this looks like a lot of fun. There’s no … iambic pentameter, there’s no rhymes. You know? Where’s the catharsis? Where’s the tragedy?’ … I ended up getting a call on Halloween that they had decided to use me, and I was delighted.”

11. Not being Anthony Michael Hall worked in Stephen Geoffreys's favor.

In a weird way, it was by not being Anthony Michael Hall that Stephen Geoffreys was cast as Evil Ed. “I actually met Jackie Burch, the casting director, by mistake in New York months before this movie was cast and she remembered me,” Geoffreys shared at Fright Fest. “My agent sent me for an audition for Weird Science. And Anthony Michael Hall was with the same agent that I was with, and she sent me by mistake. And Jackie looked at me when I walked into the office and said, ‘You’re not Anthony Michael Hall!’ and I’m like ‘No!’ But anyway, I sat down and I talked to Jackie for a half hour and she remembered me from that interview and called my agent, and my agent sent me the script while I was with Amanda [Bearse] in Palm Springs doing Fraternity Vacation, and I read it. It was awesome. The writing was incredible.”

12. Evil Ed wanted to be Charley Brewster.

Stephen Geoffreys stars in 'Fright Night' (1985).
Stephen Geoffreys stars in Fright Night (1985).
Columbia Pictures

Geoffreys loved the script for Fright Night. “I just got this really awesome feeling about it,” he said. “I read it and thought I’ve got to do this. I called my agent and said ‘I would love to audition for the part of Charley Brewster!’ [And he said] ‘No, Steve, you’re wanted for the part of Evil Ed.’ And I went, ‘Are you kidding me? Why? I couldn’t… What do they see in me that they think I should be this?' Well anyway, it worked out. It was awesome and I had a great time.”

13. Fright Night's original ending was much different.

The film’s original ending saw Peter Vincent transform into a vampire—while hosting “Fright Night” in front of a live television audience.

14. A ghost from Ghostbusters made a cameo in Fright Night.

Visual effects producer Richard Edlund had recently finished up work on Ghostbusters when he and his team began work on Fright Night. And the movie gave them a great reason to recycle one of the library ghosts they had created for Ghostbusters—which was deemed too scary for Ivan Reitman's PG-rated classic—and use it as a vampire bat for Fright Night.

15. Fright Night's cast and crew took it upon themselves to record some DVD commentaries.

Because the earliest DVD versions of Fright Night contained no commentary tracks, in 2008 the cast and crew partnered with Icons of Fright to record a handful of downloadable “pirate” commentary tracks about the making of the film. The tracks ended up on a limited-edition 30th anniversary Blu-ray of the film, which sold out in hours.

16. Vincent Price loved Fright Night.


Columbia Pictures

Holland had the chance to meet Vincent Price one night at a dinner party at McDowall’s. And the actor was well aware that McDowall’s character was based on him. “I was a little bit embarrassed by it,” Holland admitted. “He said it was wonderful and he thought Roddy did a wonderful job. Thank God he didn’t ask why he wasn’t cast in it.”

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