In 1935, Henry Raven set out with Arthur S. Vernay, Stephen F. Hopwood, and other hunters, academics, and guides on a research trip to Burma. He served as lead scientist, collector, and primary photographer. Following along the northern section of Chindwin River, the group set out to document the indigenous birds, tribes, and customs of the area for further comparison and study back at the AMNH.

Before Raven left on the expedition, he first had to itemize and arrange for all the things he would need for the following three months. Some he would acquire personally, others were supplied by the museum, and even more items would have to be purchased with traveling funds once the team was en route through England, Bombay, and Rangoon.

‘List of Material Required for the Burma Expedition.’ Filed in Vernay, Folder  III-B3, Division of Vertebrate Zoology, Department of Mammalogy Archives, AMNH.

‘List of Material Required for the Burma Expedition.’ Filed in Vernay, Folder III-B3, Division of Vertebrate Zoology, Department of Mammalogy Archives, AMNH.

‘List of Material Required for the Burma Expedition.’ Filed in Vernay, Folder  III-B3, Division of Vertebrate Zoology, Department of Mammalogy Archives, AMNH.

‘List of Material Required for the Burma Expedition.’ Filed in Vernay, Folder III-B3, Division of Vertebrate Zoology, Department of Mammalogy Archives, AMNH.

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Coelacanth mosaic at 81st Street subway platform

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.

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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…

AMNH neg.311245

“Hall of Ocean Life, showing assembling whale skeletons”, December 1925.
AMNH neg.311245

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Young James Chapin with owl, 1906-7?

“Young James Chapin with owl”, circa 1906.  AMNH Department of Ornithology.

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.

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"Roy Chapman Andrews & Snowball pose for picture on top of Dodge Sedan as Mrs. Andrews watches." Circa 1934.

“Roy Chapman Andrews & Snowball pose for picture on top of Dodge Sedan as Mrs. Andrews watches.” Circa 1934. A publicity shoot for Dodge.

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.

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Jenny Brown, Collection Manager of the Ware Collection of Blaschka Glass Models of Plants at Harvard, will be giving a lecture about this amazing collection, with its 847 species created between 1887 and 1936 by the Blaschkas’ German studio. The event is at Brooklyn’s Observatory at 8pm, August 27, 2013. Tickets are $8. Presented by Morbid Anatomy.

Details of the event here:


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).

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Naturalist John Burroughs and Industrialist, Henry Ford in first Ford Car, 1913

Naturalist John Burroughs and industrialist, Henry Ford in first Ford Car, 1913

 The AMNH Library has been very, very…very! busy lately. This year started with the web migration in January that resulted in our magnificent new web site (kudos to Mai Reitmeyer, Gregory Raml, Jen Cwiok and Susan Lynch and Tom Baione, our fearless Library Director).

Some web links were lost in transition but have been repaired and the new site is a welcome improvement. Look for our new image database to be launched in the fall!

The new CLIR grant began in February and Iris Lee and Becca Morgan and I spent the spring planning and developing the project. Our summer interns are here and working away as you can see from Cara and Alison’s insightful postings below. We will be interviewing interns for the fall term at the end of next week. Nick Krabbenhoeft joined our team on July 15th for a six month practicum for his degree at the University of Michigan and has been consulting with Tom Trombone from AMNH Ornithology, Lawrence Gall from Yale’s Peabody Museum and Brian Wilson from The Henry Ford about the intricacies and vagaries of KE EMu software used by many of the AMNH science departments for their collections. We are investigating how the program might be used for AMNH archival records and whether it can be used to keep the EAC-CPF records that we’ve begun to produce. EMu does accommodate archival collection records in EAD in its cataloging module. Next on the list to investigate is ArchiveSpace. Iris has begun drafting the functional requirements for a system that can be used for our project to develop a cyberinfrastructure to hold our growing stores of data and based on that document, we will begin to make structured comparisons based on need, functionality and costs.

Creating and harnessing the data (sometimes this does feel like the Manhattan project!) has begun and we are struggling with issues like documenting workflows and managing permissions for the data sets in the spread sheets. Right now, Iris is the data master. This is one of the main reasons we need a content management system for the collection records (in EAD) that we created during the last CLIR project along with the creator records for names of persons and of expeditions (in EAC-CPF), and finally, for the biographical and historical notes that will relate and link many of the records, whether for collections or their creators. It’s a very interesting technological puzzle and we’re also in contact with a group working on a NYC Linked Open Data initiative.
Meanwhile, Becca, with her interns, is grappling with the conceptual issues regarding the creation of the narrative contextual notes that will be shared, in time, not only within the Museum but with other institutions. We’re closely following the development of a National Archival Authorities Infrastructure and the NAAC project. Our work shows the need for a redefinition of the contextual notes that were traditionally associated with collection descriptions but are now also associated with entity descriptions and that will be shared among institutions. For example, how long should these notes be? The answer will depend upon a number of factors, including available time, of course, and the relevance of the entity to the institution. Expect more to come on this. It gets surprisingly complex. This is not your mother’s finding aid.

Finally, anticipating our next major project to digitize some 10,000 photographs in the AMNH collection depicting North American Anthropology, we’ve been identifying images directly associated with specific expeditions and developing the biographical and historical notes to associate with those archival collections. We want to get copies of these images back to their source communities working with library school students in programs that emphasize Native American and First Nation curricula. It all comes around and we will implement a collection level approach in our image database where we can use the contextual notes generated for this project for finding aids for the photographs, many of which were taken on Museum expeditions.

Yup, a little busy. I’ll be at the Society of American Archivists meeting on a panel chaired by Sarah Demb from the Museum of London, on Thursday August 15th, called “Pushing the Envelope: Using Object Collections Management Systems to Catalog Archives” along with Carol O. Bartels from the Historic New Orleans Collection, the aforementioned Brian Wilson from The Henry Ford, and Mary E. Hope from the U.S. Army Medical Department Center of History and Heritage. Hope to see you in New Orleans!

110219 1925 Mrs Davis, Beck and Correia at fan palmm

Mrs Davis, Beck and Correia at fan palm 1925

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.

114957 WSSE Fiji Yasawas island 1925 The France 0001

WSSE Fiji Yasawas Island – The France – 1925

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.