- Project Team
When walking to the exit in the 81st St. – Museum of Natural History subway station, among the creatures on the walls welcoming visitors to the museum is a fish that may appear to be just another prehistoric creature from some geological age long ago. In truth, it wasn’t until the twentieth century that paleontologists learned that this fish, previously thought to be a long extinct dino-era species found only in fossils, was alive and well in the waters off South Africa.
The Coelacanth (pronounced SEEL-uh-kanth) is an exceedingly rare and endangered species of fish that is related to land-dwelling vertebrates, and its lack of evolution over hundreds of millions of years make this fish what experts have dubbed a “living fossil”; the fish looks just as it did when it first appeared in the Devonian period fossil record, some 375,000,000 years ago. In 1938, fishermen caught the first living Coelacanth specimen near the mouth of the Chalumna River, right off the southeastern coast of South Africa. It was purportedly noticed in a fish market by a woman named Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer, who was a curator at the nearby East London Museum. She, in turn, sent sketches and a description of the primeval fish to renowned South African ichthyologist J.L.B. Smith who recognized it as a Coelacanth and named the species Latimeria chalumnae after Ms. Courtenay-Latimer and the river in which it was found. As of 1957 only 12 other living specimens had been found, all near the Comoros Islands, and were taken the Natural History Museum in Paris for study. The original discovery was hailed by scientists worldwide as one of the most important natural history discoveries of the century.
With the discovery of such specimens scientists began to believe that the Coelacanth is a missing link between water and land vertebrates as suggested by the characteristic fins that extend from their bodies like legs. They are also, along with their cousins the Lungfish, the closest living relatives of a certain group of primitive lobe-finned fishes which gave rise to the very first four limbed land invertebrates, including us humans.
This discovery was of great interest to Bob Schaeffer, Vertebrate Paleontologist and the American Museum of Natural History’s curator of fossil fishes, and it was he who set out to gain a specimen for the museum’s collections. In the mid-1950s deals were made for the AMNH to purchase the cast of a female Coelacanth from the Natural History Museum in Paris. This would be the first cast of a modern Coelacanth to hit the western hemisphere and would eventually go on view on the first floor of the Roosevelt Memorial Hall.
A few years later in 1962, Schaeffer was contacted regarding a physical (though not living) specimen in the hands of a French doctor working in the Comoros named G.W. Garrouste, who was referred to him by J.L.B. Smith. After much consternation of exactly how to ship this delicate specimen, it was sent across the ocean via Air France and landed in a tank of isopropyl alcohol at the Department of Ichthyology at AMNH.
This turned out to only be the beginning in this Coelacanth’s story. The fish continued to sit in the Ichthyology Department for 13 years until it was brought out for a tissue sampling as part of a comparative hematology study by Dr. Charles Rand in 1975. Present for the sampling would be James W. Atz, curator in the department of Ichthyology and specialist in fish brooding habits, as well as Bob Shaeffer.
This simple tissue extraction turned into a chance to dissect the specimen, which had some very surprising results. The specimen, previously thought to be male, was actually a female and inside her were five unborn Coelacanth pups. Prior to this discovery, it was unclear how the Latimeria species bred their young, and this finding provided definitive evidence that they give birth to live babies. The number of known specimens of this rare creature suddenly grew as a result. After the discovery, much thought was put into how to best make use of the new specimens. Researchers vied for a chance to use them for their projects, and the ichthyology department accepted proposals to ensure a proper home for the pups.
According to Dr. Atz, who put together the collection of correspondence related to the specimen acquisition now in the Research Library archives, the mystery of the “dino-fish” had been romanticized and exaggerated to the point of being embellished into a Jurassic-park like myth. The discovery attracted many people to, as Atz put it, “clamber aboard the living-coelacanth bandwagon”
Although the story might not have been as enigmatic and as some would have liked, it is certain that the Coelacanth holds a special place in the natural history of our world and has contributed to how people understand the many fascinating creatures that have come before us. It is also an exciting event in the museum’s history and a testament AMNH’s tradition of discovery and exploration of species.
Researchers have recently undertaken the task of decoding the Coelacanth’s genome as a means of better understanding evolution of tetrapods and how fins eventually became legs.
As an intern with the CLIR Hidden Collections Project, I processed the papers of James W. Atz, a noted ichthyologist and curator at the AMNH from 1947 until becoming a Curator Emeritus in 1981. His collection contains a diverse assortment of correspondence between Atz and other scientists in ichthyology and related fields. In going through his personal papers I quickly gathered the importance of the Coelacanth and the implications further study on this creature would have on a variety of scientific spheres. Also in the museum’s collections is a well-kept record of the Coelacanth specimen’s arrival at the AMNH and the excitement it produced among the specialists here, which Atz affectionately put together before retiring.
Have you ever walked through the halls of the American Museum of Natural History and imagined what it was like for a scientist in the 1920s to gather specimens and interpret important data? As a seasonal intern for the CLIR Hidden Collections project, I’m helping uncover and organize information documented by the museum and its staff for all interested researchers. Recently I’ve been working with the papers of Henry Cushier Raven, an Associate Curator of Comparative and Human Anatomy at the Museum and the plethora of his scientific reports- one of which had a very unique origin story…
The construction of the Hall of Ocean life was a gradual one. Collecting, assembling, hoisting, and securing those massive mammals took time. One positive aspect to the slow movement is that it left ample floor space for storage and assembly. When most would see a half-empty room longing for furniture, Raven saw the perfect space to continue his studies.
In 1928, a two-ton baby sperm whale (Physeter catodon) found its way into the Gowanus area of Brooklyn, NY. Although strange animal guests like this have entered the Gowanus canal several times since then, this initial event caused a bit of fervor with both the locals and the reporting media. Even the New York Times had a bit of fun: “Two-Ton Whale Seized In Gowanus Canal; Puts Up Terrific Fight; Museum Will Get It (March 14, 1928).”
Raven knew immediately that the whale would make a perfect specimen for muscle anatomy study. George G. Goodwin, Associate Curator of Mammalogy jumped into action quickly, securing a suitable flat-bed transport, some capable hands, and fifty dollars to pay for the catch. Once the whale was safe within the museum walls, Raven sacrificed all of his embalming fluid reserves for a few precious days of dissection in one of the only places in the museum large (and empty) enough, the Hall of Ocean Life.
And so Raven began, inspecting, discovering, and recording all that he saw. He was so enraptured by the beast’s anatomical structure that his dissection took several, more pungent days than expected. So many sour-smelling Spring days, in fact, that it created some very languid coworkers and one angry Museum Director George H. Sherwood.
Raven and museum associate William K. Gregory were dissatisfied with past research on spermaceti organs and nasal passages: “[These other scientists] have left us with a bewildering mass of details with but passing clues as to the function, origin or evolution of the several parts” and used the Gowanus whale to right past wrongs. Together they wrote “The spermaceti organ and nasal passages of the sperm whale (Physeter catodon) and other odontocetes.”
Most of Raven’s detailed photographs and illustrations proved essential for today’s understanding of muscle mechanics, evolutionary traits, and habitat preservation. In 2007 yet another young whale found it’s way into the Gowanus canal and subsequently died. Comparative anatomist Joy Reidenberg’s findings on this young whale’s death (and rarely seen whale anatomy in general) heralds back to the excitement of scientific discovery that Raven surely felt.
More examples of Raven’s findings can be found in the Henry C. Raven papers, AMNH Special Collections (Mss .R38). To view essay drafts and illustrations relating to the Gowanus baby sperm whale, please see Box 1, Folders 4, 21.
As part of my internship this fall at the American Museum of Natural History, I was asked to create authority records for the American Museum Congo Expedition (1909-1915) and its two scientists: the mammalogist Herbert Lang and ornithologist James Paul Chapin. I particularly became engrossed with the story of Chapin’s experiences. He was a fascinating figure in the history of the Museum, and one of those individuals I have now placed on my “If I could have a dinner party with five people” wish list.
Born a stone’s throw from the Museum, Chapin’s family moved to Staten Island when he was three. There he cultivated a love of nature, encouraged by his mother. His childhood nickname was Chippy, and his first scientific presentation as a teen was on the observations of a mouse in captivity. Although he had obtained a scholarship to Columbia University, he postponed college for a year after high school and obtained work at the Museum. It was there that he found his home away from home. He would stay with the Museum for 43 years, and even after his retirement maintained a very close association with the institution as Curator Emeritus. In 1935 he wrote that he was “First employed by American Museum at the age of 16…hopes to work hard for the Museum as long as he lives.” He ultimately would do just that.When Chapin was 19 years old he was hand-chosen by Lang to be his assistant on the Congo Expedition. Although he was still in college, he jumped at the chance to take this adventure. These two men would be the only members of the proposed two year Expedition. It ultimately lasted six years. Hence Chapin left New York an enthusiastic young man and returned an experienced field researcher, well on the road to becoming a world expert on African ornithology. The journey would be considered perilous. The Congo Free State (later Belgian Congo) had a tumultuous history, with declarations of barbarity by the governing bodies as well as the accusations of cannibalism in the area. I know that at 19 I would never have been brave enough to take such an excursion. I cannot imagine what his family was feeling as he departed. In fact, after a communication blockage resulting in about a year and a half without communication, Chapin’s letter to his mother even made the newspaper! It is a charming juxtaposition that this young man helping to lead an expedition in a foreign country, training native assistants, preparing material, collecting and describing specimens would need to write home to his mother to please let his college know that again he won’t be back in time for the next semester.
The journey fostered a lifelong friendship with the two men. Although Lang was only ten years older, Chapin considered him a father figure and admired him greatly. The Congolese would even call Chapin ‘mtoto na Langi’ (Lang’s son). This expedition also fostered a love affair with Africa for both men. Lang would ultimately settle there, and Chapin would return to the Congo again and again for research and be credited with discovering the Congo peacock. He did become a world authority on African birds, achieving a PhD in Ornithological field work and publishing greatly, including his four-volume Birds of the Congo. He was reputedly a wonderful and engaging speaker, and was a prolific correspondent and record keeper. I was able to examine amazingly detailed acquaintance card files he kept, many of which were illustrated with small drawings and doodles. It seems as if he never lost the passion for what he did and for sharing it with others, which makes him such a fitting and wonderful representative of this Museum, and one whom I feel privileged to get to “know.”
Roy Chapman Andrews was an explorer and paleontologist, director of the American Museum of Natural History from 1935 to 1941. He was the quintessential adventurer. Andrews began as a volunteer janitor and self-taught taxidermist at the museum in 1906. His first expedition was to the Pacific Coast to study marine mammals; he went on to explore in Alaska, Japan and Korea, and, aboard the U.S.S. Albatross, the East Indies. Andrews made over 20 expeditions, but his most famous were the Asiatic Zoological Expeditions, especially the third, from 1921 to 1930, known as the Central Asiatic Expeditions, which traveled to the Gobi Desert of Mongolia and China.
This summer I processed two collections of his personal papers, correspondence, and publications. The first collection I worked on was the Roy Chapman Andrews papers, 1987 Accession. The boxes contained mostly Chapman’s personal papers and information of his publicity efforts. Roy kept a good amount of his fan mail and you can find some very interesting letters, such as the one composed entirely in collage complete with rebus puzzles.
There are also letters from Chapman referencing the Templeton-Crocker Pacific expedition for the Whitney Wing to collect birds, discussing the individuals chosen to go on the expedition and the itinerary for the trip. The collection also contains a small amount of papers related to the research on Yvette Borup’s Family. Yvette was Andrews’ first wife and companion on some of his expeditions.
The second collection relates to Andrews’ most famous adventures, the Central Asiatic Expeditions. Andrews fell in love with China and led his team there three times to explore the origins of man. Much of the collection is comprised of letters to and from Andrews about the preparation of the expeditions including lists of local people who worked on the expedition. Among the letters are a few from Harry Caldwell, a missionary in Yenping, China. He writes to Andrews about an infamous blue tiger. The blue tiger, or Maltese tiger, is a reported but unproven coloration of a tiger, reported mostly in China. Caldwell wrote the book Blue Tiger (1924) about his time searching for the animal. In his letter he states:
Things look bad for the ‘blue tiger’. Da Da has returned from a visit home, and confirms the reports reaching me for months. He listed more than 70 people which have been killed by the beast within the past few months. One woman saw it plainly a short time ago and lived to tell the story. She was washing clothes at a pool when the tiger sprang upon her from above. She dodged, and the tiger went over her head and into the pool. It swam around in the pool and then climbed out on opposite side and went away. The woman was taken up unconscious from fear. She describes the beast definitely, and it is my ‘blue tiger’.
Andrews eventually went in search of the blue tiger and described the hunt in his autobiography “Under a Lucky Star”, but was never able to catch it.
The project has been as exciting as it is informative. I hope, now that these collections have updated finding aids, they will prove to be valuable tools for researching Andrews and the details of the Central Asiatic Expeditions.
The Crocker Land Expedition (1913-1917) had difficulties from the start. The expedition whose mission was to investigate an Arctic landmass Robert E. Peary reported seeing, was originally supposed to begin in July 1912, but due to the death of George Borup, one of the expedition leaders, in April of 1912, the expedition was put off until the following July, 1913. Then, an expedition that was supposed to last for one season ended up being four years long. During this time the Crocker Land Expedition’s ship the S.S. Diana wrecked and there were three unsuccessful rescue attempts before Captain Robert A. Bartlett, aboard the steamer “The Neptune”, finally reached the remaining members in 1917 (in the winter of 1916 several of the expedition members had traveled south by dogsled and returned home).
The last rescue attempt before Bartlett was led by Dr. Edmund O. Hovey, a geologist at the American Museum of Natural History and one of the organizers of the Crocker Land Expedition. After two failed rescue attempts he felt the need to personally involve himself in the third to ensure its success. The American Museum of Natural History hired the schooner “George B. Cluett” from the Grenfell Association to make the third attempt. However, due to a particularly bitter winter they too became stuck in the ice, and were forced to remain in the North for a year.
Its captain, a man named H.C. Pickels, took some photos of this third failed attempt at rescue. Although they were unable to bring the men back, they did succeed in reaching the men of the Crocker Land Expedition, as is evidenced in photos such as this one:
Either Pickels or someone at the Grenfell Association annotated all 35 of these photos, and they therefore provide a window into the experience of these men as they too found themselves on a vessel stuck in the ice, awaiting the next summer.
Photos like this one illuminate the scene of their entrapment:
And, there are even photos of the men themselves while stranded:
Most of my internship this summer was spent preparing biographical information for the members of the Crocker Land Expedition, and seeing the images of the third rescue attempt, when these men had been marooned for 2 years already (and knowing they would be for 2 more), provided me with a real sense of how long they really were gone, and how far removed they were from receiving any help.
The photos of the “George B. Cluett” adrift in an open sea, or in front of the formidable mountains of Southern Greenland provided real perspective: the seven men of the Crocker Land Expedition were trapped in a frozen wilderness for four years, but to some extent by choice, and they weren’t alone; they chose to stay rather than to abandon their equipment and the mission of their expedition. And as a consequence of this determination, they were able to bring specimens, maps, and reports on the Arctic terrain back to the American Museum of Natural History and the American Geographical Society, where they are today.
The AMNH ornithological Whitney South Sea Expedition conducted active field research from 1920 to 1941. My task of writing biographical authority records of the expedition members has revealed the fascinating lives of not only the scientists who participated, but also of the often overlooked wives and native guides who assisted in the research.
The initial list of 17 participants included only the male scientists who embarked from North America. The list has since expanded to 29 and continues to grow. The added names are the wives of the scientists and the native guides or crewmen hired to help traverse the difficult terrain. It is only in brief passing that these seemingly peripheral characters are mentioned. However, their presence should not be underestimated. One field journal notes that the ship engineer, a native of the South Seas cited as “Hicks”, not only maintained the boat but also assisted team leader Rollo Beck in skinning and preparing bird specimens for shipment back to the United States.
The scientists’ wives were not merely along for a tropical vacation — Ida Beck accompanied her husband for nearly the full eight years that Rollo Beck was the expedition leader. Their exploration of the hundreds of islands comprising the South Pacific was a rough campaign full of constant illness, intense physical exertion and danger, as well as months of isolation. Many contemporary newspaper articles in the Beck vertical file at the AMNH research library vaunt Mrs. Beck as a woman on holiday who basks in the exotic landscape. However, the field journals and notes show that Ida spent most of her days aboard the cramped expedition vessel, the France. While on land she collected bird specimens and took field notes, accompanying the team through the harsh landscape, leaving little leisure time.
Another woman, Virginia Correia, was usually only referred to as the wife of Jose Correia — her first name did not appear in research until her obituary was found. Jose Correia, a collector on WSSE, described in his journal the importance of Virginia’s presence on the expedition. She saved him countless hours by collecting birds while he hunted. She gathered eggs and skinned specimens, a skill, Jose wrote, in which she surpassed most men. However, Virginia was never mentioned in field updates or official correspondence. At one point the expedition even considered charging Jose fifty cents a day to have his wife on board the France.
Almost one hundred years after the Whitney South Sea Expedition began, our focus has shifted to include all participants of the voyage. At times it has presented a research challenge since official correspondence often omits crew members and women. However, having access to field journals has been an invaluable source in collecting names of all who were affiliated with WSSE. A rounded story is beginning to form and I am excited at the prospect of giving the women and guides of the expedition an equal place among the scientists.
I’m on an expedition to an expedition, digging in the archives of the American Museum of Natural History to rediscover the history of the Hyde Exploring Expedition to Ancestral Pueblo civilizations in the Southwest. Benjamin Talbot Babbitt Hyde and his brother Frederick E. Hyde, Jr., financed an expedition in the winter of 1893-1894 to excavate the Ancestral Pueblo cliff dwelling civilization in Pueblo Bonito. In addition to the cliff dwellers, evidence of an earlier “Basketmaking” civilization was discovered beneath the canyon floor. The finds were substantial, including thousands of cylindrical pottery vases unique to this site, turquoise, flutes, baskets, and human remains. A second expedition (the Whitmore Exploring Expedition) pursued the work in the midst of the bitterly cold winter of 1896-1897. The Hyde brothers purchased and donated the artifacts from both expeditions to the American Museum of Natural History and continued to sponsor further archeological digs in the region. B.T.B. Hyde became an assistant in the AMNH Department of Anthropology and directly participated in a 1920 expedition (the Cartier Expedition) to Pueblo Bonito to verify the earlier fieldwork.
Over time, the objects, photographs, and glass negatives became separated from the field notes, catalogues, and correspondence that provide essential documentary information and context. Artifacts and documentation about them migrated to other institutions and to separate departments within the AMNH. This fragmentation of records and scattering of finds tests the archivist: arrange and describe a collection of images (mostly glass negatives) that have literally and figuratively lost their legends.
In the course of this work, I am struck by the parallel worlds of the archivist and the archaeologist. Both require imagination about where to dig, a light touch in sifting through fragile remains of the past, respect for stratigraphy and the geology of time, careful documentation, and a good faith effort to shed the biases of the present to see the past in its true context. The end goal draws me in deeper like light at the end of a tunnel–OK, I confess to transient fears that the beam may be an oncoming train–but mostly I’m driven by the purpose of this project: to create a fully text-searchable EAD finding aid and EAC records that link information about the creators of records to the circumstances and context of their use. Upon completion, this project will facilitate research from within the Museum and from any point on the planet with an internet connection.
But where to begin? Start with Hyde and go seek. Museum archivist Barbara Mathé and project archivist Rebecca Morgan guided me to secondary sources to learn about the history of archaeology in Pueblo Bonito. Cowboys and Cave Dwellers: Basketmaker Archaeology in Utah’s Grand Gulch by Fred Blackburn and Ray Williamson was a propitious beginning. They describe a process of “reverse archaeology”–matching museum collections back to their original location and date of excavation. Their work, and that of the Wetherill-Grand Gulch Research Project, involves the painstaking association of museum collections and archives with the signatures and dates explorers etched on cavern walls more than a century ago. These sources also provided an initial cast of characters, information about the relationships between them, and insight into the history of (often bad) museum practices in an era of hot competition to amass collections from historic sites of Native American civilizations. Names of key players that were lost or maligned in history, like that of Hyde Exploring Expedition leader Richard Wetherill, emerged. The templates for EAC records created by metadata analyst Iris Lee help me think schematically and organize the vast sprawl of information as I dig.
Moving on to primary sources, including the Museum’s institutional records, is as rewarding as finding pottery shards in Pueblo Bonito must have been for Richard Wetherill and the Hyde brothers. A historical picture is coming together from fragmentary but vivid and authentic evidence. Of course the “eureka” moments are satisfying, but exploring and identifying where not to dig is equally useful in mapping a guide to this collection. In contrast to the narrow window of a Google search, meandering through primary source materials often leads to startling vistas, a zooming out from Pueblo Bonito to the broader social context of the times. This makes me wonder, is it disengagement from current conflicts in the world today or is it an engagement with science and history that makes a day in the AMNH archives so immensely satisfying? Pushing aside political correctness to evaluate the substance of thought that bears the imprint of its time and prejudices, I found an answer in a May 31, 1918 letter from then-President of the Museum, Henry Fairfield Osborn to B.T.B. Hyde. Amid the barbarism wrought by “civilized” man in WWI, Osborn writes to Hyde in the Southwest:
“I look forward with increasing interest to your exploration of the Aztec ruin; it is altogether a bright and encouraging prospect, and a great relief, with our emotions stirred by the terrible condition of affairs on the continent of Europe,–Nature calm, serene and beautiful, and the work of primitive [sic] man a great resource in these days of trouble.”
At my high school in Scarsdale, NY, seniors enjoy a major perk at the end of their high school careers in the opportunity that is Senior Options. This six-week program encourages seniors to find an internship or complete an independent project of their interest and really get a chance to take part in a working environment. I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to work at American Museum of Natural History Research Library in Special Collections. I couldn’t think of a more appropriate place to work than the institution that sparked my educational career when I was a boy.
My work in Special Collections has been primarily with the vertical files, particularly with the biographical files. I worked four days a week condensing and verifying the information within the biographical files. Before I arrived, these files were split into Bio 1 and Bio 2. The separations indicated the relevance to the museum; those who were Bio 1 tended to be employees, trustees, or other individuals closely related to the museum, while those in Bio 2 tended to have a greater degree of separation from the museum. The work I did over the six weeks will hopefully make it easier for the library to create finding aids and eventually link the data of the biographical files with the data of the expedition files and other files to be determined. This will be extremely important for future research, as it will allow for information to be gathered quicker and easier than before via the different links.
While the work could be mundane at times, I am glad I had the opportunity to intern in the Special Collections and I am eternally grateful to all the staff who helped me along the way and were always so kind and caring. I am eager to go back and continue to work on the vertical files; I just know something incredible will come out of the whole linked data idea!
Describing Expeditionary field work at the AMNHThese posts describe recent discoveries and observations by the project team.
In 2012, the Research Library of the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) was awarded a grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, through a program administered by the Council on Library and Information Resources’ (CLIR) Cataloging Hidden Collections. The AMNH Archive Project will produce in-depth descriptions, called finding aids, for major archival collections relating to Museum expeditions. The project will also result in brief histories of these expeditions and biographies of those who participated in them.
TagsAinu AMNH library catalog Anthropology Archives Archbold Archival Arrangement Authority Names CAT Cataloging CLIR 2010 clir 2012 Correspondence Crocker Land Department of Preparation and Installation Department Records EAC-CPF expeditions Fall 2011 Field Notes Finding Aid finding aids Hayden Planetarium Herpetology Archives hidden connections IMLS LARA linked data Mammalogy Archives Manuscript Collection Maps Museum History Non-Curatorial Field Notes Ornithology Archives Paleontology Archives Phase 2 photographs Photo Print Collection Processing Research Library Risk Assessment Slide Collection Spring 2011 Spring 2012 Summer 2011 Summer 2012 T. Don Carter
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