In 1920, at the behest of American Museum of Natural History trustee Dr. Leonard C. Sanford, Harry Payne Whitney contributed $100,000 to fund a collecting expedition for birds of Polynesia. AMNH’s Rollo H. Beck, a leader among American birds collectors, was chosen to led the Whitney South Sea expedition and did so from 1921 until 1928.

Aboard the 75-ton schooner France, the team visited almost every island in the South Seas and collected a large number of birds species during this expedition. The expedition was subsequently led by the evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr who would later in 1931 accept a curatorial position at the AMNH. In the same year, Mayr was instrumental in acquiring the Walter Rothschild collection of birds skins. Rothschild unfortunately needed to sell his collection in order to pay off a blackmailer. The funds used to purchase the Rothschild collection for the AMNH was donated by Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, widow of the late Harry Payne Whitney who died in 1930.

Due to the success of this expedition, Whitney also offered matching funding to the City of New York to build an addition to the museum to be devoted entirely to the museum’s department of birds. The Whitney Wing was completed in 1935. Today’s visitors can find on the second floor of the Whitney Wing, the Whitney Hall of Oceanic Birds.

For more information, see:
Birds collected during the Whitney South Sea Expedition. 45, Notes on New Guinea birds. 8. American Museum novitates ; no. 1133 Mayr, Ernst, 1904-; Whitney South Sea Expedition of the American Museum of Natural History (1920-1941) http://digitallibrary.amnh.org/dspace/handle/2246/4833

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