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


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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.


5 Weird American Cemetery Legends

iStock/grandriver
iStock/grandriver

These strange, spooky cemetery tales of vampires, ghosts, and bloody headstones will keep you up at night. (If you're not too scared, add them to your next cemetery road trip, and keep this guide of common cemetery symbols handy for when you visit.)

1. The Vampire of Lafayette Cemetery

Perhaps it's not surprising that a grave with "born in Transylvania" etched on it would invite vampire comparisons. Local legends say that a tree growing over this grave in Lafayette, Colorado, sprung from the stake that killed the vampire inside, and that the red rosebushes nearby are his bloody fingernails. There are also reports of a tall, slender man in a dark coat with black hair and long nails who sometimes sits on the tombstone. It's not clear what the man who bought the plot—Fodor Glava, a miner who died in 1918—would have thought of all these stories, especially since he might not have actually been buried there.

2. The Green Glow of Forest Park Cemetery

The abandoned Forest Park Cemetery (also known as Pinewoods Cemetery) near Troy, New York, is known for several urban legends. One of the strangest concerns local taxi drivers, who say they pick up fares nearby asking to go home, only to have the passenger mysteriously vanish when they drive by the cemetery. Others tell of a decapitated angel statue that bleeds from its neck—although the effect may be attributed to a certain kind of moss. But one of the eeriest parts of the grounds is a dilapidated mausoleum said to be home to a green, glowing light often seen right where the coffins used to be located.

3. The New Orleans Tomb That Grants Wishes

Famed "Voodoo Queen" Marie Laveau is buried in arguably the oldest and most famous cemetery in New Orleans, St. Louis Cemetery No. 1. (Or said to be, anyway—some dispute surrounds her actual burial spot.) For years, visitors hoping to earn Marie's supernatural assistance would mark three large Xs on her mausoleum; some also knocked three times on her crypt. However, a 2014 restoration of her tomb removed the Xs, and there's a substantial fine now in place for anyone who dares write on her tomb.

4. Pennsylvania's Bleeding Headstone

The Union Cemetery in Millheim has one of the nation's weirder headstones: It's said to bleed. The grave belongs to 19th-century local William (or Daniel) Musser, whose descendants tried to replace the tombstone repeatedly, but the blood (or something that looked like blood) just kept coming back—until they added an iron plate on top.

5. Smiley's Ghost in Garland, Texas

A single plot in the Mills Cemetery is home to five members of the Smiley family, who all died on the same day. Rumor has it that if you lie down on the grave at midnight (especially on Halloween), you'll find it very difficult to rise back up, as the ghost of old man Smiley tries to pull you down, hoping to add one more member to the family's eternal resting place.

8 Fun Facts About Muppet Babies

The Jim Henson Company
The Jim Henson Company

Before prequels were a thing, Jim Henson’s Muppet Babies imagined a world in which the felt-covered characters of Henson’s Muppets franchise—Kermit, Miss Piggy, Animal, and Fozzie Bear among them—met up as children in a nursery. Left to their own devices, the animated cast led a rich fantasy life while in diapers. For more on this 1984-1991 show, including why it’s so hard to find anywhere except YouTube, keep reading.

1. Frank Oz didn’t really want Muppet Babies.

The idea to infantilize the Muppets came from Michael Frith, a longtime collaborator of Jim Henson’s, in the early 1980s. Frith believed that regressing the characters could allow them to impart moral or educational messages to children already familiar with them. But Frank Oz, a Muppets performer (Miss Piggy) and film director, argued that the Muppets needed to maintain their subversive edge. It was Henson who found a compromise, suggesting that younger versions of the characters appear in a dream sequence for 1984’s feature film The Muppets Take Manhattan. The response to the scene was overwhelmingly positive, and Henson soon teamed with Marvel Productions and CBS for an animated series that began airing in September 1984.

2. Skeeter was the result of a gender imbalance on Muppet Babies.

Most of the principal Muppet Babies cast was made up of recognizable characters, including Kermit, Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, Rowlf, Gonzo, Animal, Bunsen, and Scooter. But Frith, Henson, and producers Bob Richardson and Hank Saroyan decided that the babies were skewing a little too male. Aside from Piggy and their caretaker, Nanny, there were no female characters. To balance the scales, they introduced Skeeter, Scooter’s twin sister, a brainy problem-solver.

Skeeter has made only fleeting and sporadic appearances in the Muppet franchise since, leading to speculation she might be caught up in rights issues between CBS and the Jim Henson Company, which was purchased by Disney in 2004. Fortunately, the somewhat murky situation appears to be at least partially resolved: It was recently reported Skeeter will resurface in the new computer-animated iteration of Muppet Babies, which is currently airing its second season on Disney Junior and has been renewed for a third season.

3. One of the major creative forces behind Muppet Babies was Moe Howard’s grandson.

In 1985, Muppet Babies writer Jeffrey Scott received a Humanitas Prize from the Human Family Educational and Cultural Institute for an episode of the series which the Institute declared did the best job of any kid’s show that year to “enrich the viewing public.” The episode centered on the group fearing one of them might be sent away. The prolific Scott actually wrote all 13 episodes of the first season. His father, Norman Maurer, worked at Hanna-Barbera Productions and got Scott’s foot in the door. His grandfather was Moe Howard, founder and head Stooge of The Three Stooges fame.

4. The Muppet Babies live-action segments were a result of budgetary constraints.

A hallmark of Muppet Babies is when the cast finds themselves thrust into scenes from famous films, a Walter Mitty-esque bit of fantasy fulfillment that blends live-action sequences with animation. According to Frith, devoting a portion of each episode to clips wasn’t entirely a creative choice. By inserting clips, producers could save money on animation. It was also easy for Henson to secure the rights to popular films like Star Wars or Raiders of the Lost Ark because he was friends with George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. While some believe those clips are the reason the show isn’t available to stream—sifting through the legal entanglement of reairing the segments might prove costly—that’s never been confirmed.

5. Muppet Babies never explained what the Muppets were doing in that nursery.

Given time to reflect, it seems odd that the Muppet cast would find themselves in a nursery without being supervised by their own parents. Speaking with the Detroit Free Press in 1987, Michael Frith said that the situation was purposely left vague. “I really appreciate the fact that they don’t [ask],” Frith said of his kid viewers. “Is this a day care center? Is this a foster child home? The more we talked about it, the more we felt it should just exist. The kids accept it.”

6. The voice recording sessions of Muppet Babies included copious farting.

Speaking with CNN in 2011, actor Dave Coulier (Full House) recalled that recording sessions for Muppet Babies sometimes involved flatulence. Coulier, who portrayed Animal and Bunsen, among others, said that “lots of fart humor” punctuated the recording studio. “In one scene, Fozzie [played by Greg Berg] and Animal had to climb a ladder,” he said. “As Animal was pushing Fozzie up the ladder, they were making [grunting] sounds. In mid-scene, Greg Berg farted. I looked at [actor] Frank Welker and we couldn’t contain ourselves. Uncontrollable laughter ensued. I was literally on the floor of the studio laughing.”

7. There was an offshoot of Muppet Babies called Muppet Monsters—and it never aired in full.

Following the success of Muppet Babies, CBS and Jim Henson decided to expand on the Muppets' potential as Saturday morning stars by creating a 90-minute block in 1985 titled Muppets, Babies, and Monsters. (Muppet Babies often aired consecutive half-hour installments for an hour total.) In addition to regular Muppet Babies episodes, the program featured another half-hour of Little Muppet Monsters, which featured puppets of new Muppet monster characters named Tug, Molly, and Boo. The three appeared in a framing device that introduced animated segments of adult Muppets. Only three episodes aired out of 15 produced, reportedly due to both Henson and CBS being unhappy with the finished product and Muppet Babies standing strongly on its own. The remaining episodes have yet to see the light of day.

8. Muppet Babies was turned into a live stage show.

To further incite their juvenile audience and monetize their popularity, the Muppet Babies franchise eventually wound up live and on stage. Muppet Babies Live! debuted in 1986 and featured performers in oversized costumes dancing and acting to a prerecorded track. In one skit, the cast appeared in a Snow White homage. In another, Rowlf became Rowlfgang Amagodus Mozart and played the piano. The arena show toured the country. Hank Saroyan, one of the animated show’s producers, wrote the stage show. The performer for Baby Piggy, Elizabeth Figols, also appeared in a live production of Dirty Dancing. The show ran through 1990.

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