Currently viewing the tag: "Spring 2012"


Today marks the end of my journey with the Hayden Planetarium Interplanetary Reservations collection. It has been a long and tedious journey but the mission has been accomplished successfully. Although I cannot guarantee that humans will ever navigate via spacecraft from planet to planet, I can guarantee that if you wrote a letter to the Hayden Planetarium between the years of 1950-1953, and it was subsequently kept on file, then you can find your letter in this collection. I can also say that these letters are ready to be shipped to any company seeking passengers for space travel in the future. Although the passengers may be a bit old, or even deceased, this company will have a pool of hundreds of avid space travelers to choose from. It has been a joy arranging and describing the letters in this collection. I must admit that that I spent many hours just reading the letters from individuals all over the world longing for an opportunity to suit up and blast off to their favorite planet. The letters also brought me back in time a bit. Being 24 years old I kind of missed out on the whole Space Race of the Fifties and Sixties, and the excitement and paranoia that went along with it. So it was both cool and educational to read an elder generations thoughts and emotions. It was really interesting to read about the passion and enthusiasm, and at times pessimism, that Americans and all earthlings had for astronomy and “all-things space”. I implore anyone who has not read any of these letters to visit the Flickr site at and read some of the more interesting ones.

This particular individual was so excited for an opportunity to travel into space that he wanted the entire selection process to be skewed in a way that put him at the top.


This was our last day in Invertebrate Paleontology. We spent our morning with Bushra and Becca on the fifth floor checking that our data matched up with the collections and attaching final labels. It was a good decision to begin the day with a full room review because we realized early on that we had somehow skipped over a bay full of IP treatises and catalog ledger duplicates that required new records in our spreadsheets.

In the afternoon, we went over helpful notes Iris sent us for our spreadsheet. Looking forward to when our work will be transformed into MARC records that will eventually become part of the AMNH online research library, we had to make sure our data was neat and consistent. All of this meant deleting terminal periods and uncapitalizing words previously capitalized in all of our records, but we somehow got it all done!

It was definitely sad but also incredibly satisfying to end our work in IP. Claire and I are really proud of all that we’ve accomplished over the semester. We had fun helping Bushra realize new organization techniques for her department and we were happy to learn a lot more about Invertebrate Paleontology than we ever knew before. While it was sometimes dull work to sort through departmental files, the times when we found amazing things in the collection–photographs of the department’s early curators, beautifully handwritten ledgers and unique specimen drawings–made all of our efforts worthwhile.

Today is our last day working on the Hayden Planetarium Collection and we spent most of the day straightening up. We put our final touches on our catalog spreadsheet, shifted the last few boxes around, and finished up our risk assessment of the collection. We’ve had a great experience working with this collection, even though it could be aggravating at times when we would come across box after box of administrative records. We really enjoyed coming across all of the surprising marvels – such as the Robots in Space laserdiscs! – that this collection had to offer. But most of all, we’re proud of how neat and organized all the boxes look now – even if the contents inside the boxes are still unprocessed!

This is my last blog post on the John Treadwell Nichols’ collection, and I’m hoping to touch hearts with it. Fortunately, I saved the especially personal and sentimental side of Nichols’ records for this purpose.

Today I finished up the last of my finding aid. It was especially messy considering I needed to go through his small pocketbooks, the personal off-the-record pocketbooks. I assumed these small books—approximately the size of matchboxes—would reflect the clinical entries of Nichols’ other stuff.

The journals spanned from the early 1930s deep into the 1950s, ending just months before Nichols’ death. From what I know of Nichols, these last few decades were quiet. Although active in his own research, Nichols’ career had arrived and blossomed. He had the title of Curator Emeritus but that was the extent of his involvement with the Museum, and while he founded some of its most notable societies, the field of Ichythyology had cooled towards Nichols. Most of his colleagues viewed Nichols as a recluse. In one letter, his youngest son observed that his father was a bit of a quiet eccentric at the end of his life who never discussed his research with the family. None of his children knew of their father’s accomplishments until they were adults.

The small pocketbooks were messier than his past journals, and scanning their yellowed pages, I wondered if there was any value to them. The script and sketches were smudged, but I noticed that he’d glued a small cut-out picture of his wife on the inside of each cover. The further I examined the books, I noticed there were small poems interspersed with the recorded animal sightings.

I started going through the pages to see if I could find a reference to his family—or his pretty wife. I knew it was unlikely because I’d seen a letter where Nichols’ son insisted that nothing too personal be contained in this public collection. I also doubt that the private and reclusive Nichols might disclose anything about his family in a book of animal observations. He must have considered that his colleagues might one day leaf through them for their own research.

While I saw no references to his family, I found a small folded essay tucked into a pocketbook from 1942. The title “Thesis on Men” made me chuckle. It reminded me of Nichols’ scientific background, and I suppose he’d approach people in the same sort of clinical manner he did to fishes, birds, or amphibians. I couldn’t tell if it was Nichols’ original work, but it had a sense of humor that a few obituaries and profile pieces referred to—a biting sense of humor that I’d had yet to see.

So here is the Entry: “Thesis on Men”
Men are what women marry.

They have two hands, two feet, and sometimes two wives, but never more than one dollar or one idea at one time. Like Turkish cigarettes, they are all made of the same material; the only difference is that some are better disguised than others.

Generally speaking, they may be divided into three classes—husbands, bachelors, and widowers. A bachelor is a negligible mass of obstinacy, entirely surrounded by suspicion. Husbands are three types—prizes, surprises and consolation prizes. Making a husband out of a man is one of the highest forms of plastic art known to civilization. It requires science, sculpture, common sense, faith, hope, and charity. Mostly charity.

It is a psychological marvel that a small, tender, soft, violet-scented thing should enjoy kissing a big, awkward, stubby-chinned, tobacco-smelling, and bay-rum scented thing like a man.

If you flatter a man, you frighten him to death. If you permit him to make love to you, he gets tired of you in the end. If you don’t, he gets tired of you in the beginning.

If you believe in him, you cease to charm him. If you believe all he tells you, he thinks you are a fool. If you wear gay colors, rouge, and a startling hat, he hesitates to take you out; but if you wear a little brown beret and a tailor-made suit, he takes you out and stares all evening at a woman in gay colors, rouge, and a startling hat.

If you join the gaieties and approve of his drinking, he swears you are driving him to the devil. If you don’t approve of his drinking and urge him to give up his gaieties, he knows you are a snob.

If you are a clinging vine type, he doubts whether you have a brain; if you are a modern, advanced, intelligent woman, he doubts whether you have a heart. If you are silly, he longs for a bright mate; if you are brilliant and intellectual, he longs for a playmate.

Man is just a worm in the dust. He comes along, wriggles around for awhile, and finally some chicken gets him.
After I read through the essay, I decided I’d include it in my blog post today. Working with archival materials can be very sad in that the people related to the materials are dead and gone and have been outlived by scraps of paper. I touch the remnants of these people and am reminded that I’ll leave my own scraps—or perhaps emails and text messages—and that will be all that’s left of me.

However, when I read this entry, I realized that Nichols valued the universality of life more deeply than his own individual accomplishments. His essay “Thesis on Men” testifies to how irrational and contradictory life is. Men are all the same—curator or not, researcher or not. We are made from the same material, and we don’t want different things but want what we don’t have. The discussion about finding a wife and being tamed by one is a universal experience that all people go through, and of course death is inevitable.

But here Nichols relishes how all men will have to struggle the same way and die, and this resonated with me. I’ll be graduating in two weeks from college, and I worry what the future holds, will I be successful, am I using my time properly? This essay by Nichols reminded me that—despite the varied details—the nature of life is uniform among all people. We find love and make love and reject love, and then we die.

The essay made me wonder what Nichols would have preferred to leave behind or be known as. I wonder if he’d have wanted his career as a curator and researcher emphasized as his foremost passion, or if he’d have been pleased to have an archival collection full of pictures of his wife and his young children. I wonder if leaving behind the legacy as a generic father would’ve pleased him much more than the 1913 founder of the naturalist magazine, Capoiea. Perhaps he wouldn’t have approved of his son’s request to suppress anything to revealing about the Nichols’ household or his parent’s marriage.

This blog entry makes me wonder what I’d fill my own archival collection with, what I’d want to be known for, etc. Success and proper titles paint a distinct picture, but I wonder if they convey a real person or a personality? I knew Nichols’ history and I knew the skill and precision of his observation and scientific writings, but these small personal details, the pictures of his wife and this small essay, gives me a much better and interesting grasp of his character.

Regardless, I’ve had an amazing time here at the American Museum of Natural History. I’ve enjoyed every second of it and am grateful to Iris Lee for mentoring me and helping me figure out the protocol. This has been a wonderful experience.

Claire and I finished up authority work together today. We focused mainly on making sure our records were consistent, and then we entered topical terms into our spreadsheet to ensure that our data will be useful for researchers. Instead of going through the necessary but boring details of what it’s like to search through the Library of Congress and AMNH OPAC authority websites, I thought it would be interesting to introduce the space we’ve been working in this semester instead. Let’s start our tour!

To get to the Invertebrate Paleontology office, Claire and I leave the library, walk through the exhibits and ascend the two staircases on the fourth floor.

Next, we pass through a set of double doors and find ourselves in the fifth floor hallway where our department is located.

The fifth floor hallway is such an interesting space. On either side are ceiling-high storage units full of specimens. Now that Claire and I have spent so much time working with IP’s catalogs, we understand a good deal of the scientific language mentioned on the labels.

Bushra’s office is a few doors down the hallway, and is a great place to work. The room is large and airy, with wood floors, tall ceilings and large windows.

Meet Bushra Hussaini!

Glass cabinets full of IP’s library books line the left wall of the office. We’ve found rare books from the nineteenth century, as well as more modern, twentieth-century loan and accession ledgers behind the glass doors.

Check out the painting of wolves above the cabinets

Floor-to-ceiling glass cabinets occupy the right side of Bushra’s office. They house cardboard boxes full of a variety of materials including card catalogs, field photographs, specimen labels, departmental research and some curator memoirs.

One Post-It-labeled cabinet in IP

One of the most interesting areas of Bushra’s office is the large desk where Claire and I have sorted through our IP material. Underneath clear blotters are photographs and postcards from departmental travel. A few specimens are usually out on display on this desk as well.

Two trilobites in a specimen box

Next week Claire and I will be back in Bushra’s office to finish up our work in IP. Now you know all about the inspiring place we’ve been working in this past semester.

We finished up the last big push of our attempt creating collections for the Hayden Planetarium materials today. While we still have to physically organize quite a few items we were able to organize a great deal of it, particularly our media collections.

Of all the things we’ve done so far with the Hayden Planetarium collection we think this has been our most important effort: making the archives look pretty and searchable again! It was certainly a very cathartic (and at times, frustrating) effort for us to untangle the mishmash of boxes up here.

There are still miles to go before we sleep in terms of completing our efforts on the collection but we think we’ve earned the right to pat ourselves on the back right now, and to sit back and enjoy the view of a finally organized shelf.

We’ve been working hard in the Earth and Planetary Science department and have found a lot of really great stuff. In addition to the geologic maps, reports, and photographs, there are a good number of log books from projects relating to geology. One particularly interesting one, dating from 1900, contains notes of the soil and rock compositions encountered while digging the tunnels for one of the subway lines. The photographs shows one small excerpt from this large volume. It describes the composition of the material found at 165th st and Broadway.

The text in the photo reads:

136th st and Broadway. Red sand, from 14ft to 16 ft below the surface, and continuous as greater depths.
November 12th 1900

136th st and Broadway. Yellow sand, overlying the red sand, variable in depth; from 4ft to 2ft below surface, and extending to the surface.
November 12th 1900

This is one of the best examples we have seen of material relating directly to the New York City Geology, as opposed to the development of the museum’s collection or the expeditions undertaken by the museum. It was great to imagine the soil types underneath our feet and the people responsible for documenting it over 100 years ago.

For several weeks now I have been working on a unique collection of letters in relation to the Hayden Planetarium. I find the collection to be truly fascinating and have enjoyed arranging it. The letters are truly genuine and are often times hilarious and, in some cases, perhaps too honest. There was one letter I discovered from an individual who was fascinated with dinosaurs. In her letter she expressed her wish to travel to Venus because, according to her, it was a known fact that dinosaurs did indeed live on Venus.

In an attempt to publicize their exhibit “Conquest of Space”, the Hayden Planetarium set up what they called the “interplanetary-tour reservations desk”. This offices primary function was to draw patrons in by advertising the idea of future space travel. The late 1940s and early 1950s showcased major breakthroughs in astronomical technology and space exploration was on the minds of individuals across the globe, especially in the United States. Through advertisement in major magazines and publications in the U.S. and overseas, the Planetarium was able to generate an incredible amount of publicity for their exhibit. Potential space travelers flooded the Hayden’s inbox with letters requesting reservations for themselves, their friends, their unborn children, and even their dogs. To this date the museum has not let the public down, even if the promise of future space travel was a bit premature in 1950. Perhaps in the future, the several hundred individuals who wrote letters to the museum all those years ago will finally get their chance to travel to a distant planet.

Those wishing to view some of the letters can see them online at the following sites:
Beyond Planet Earth (AMNH Exhibition)
Letters on Flickr

Easily one of the best moments so far in this project has been looking up from the work we’re doing and seeing how much we’ve already accomplished. So far, we’ve been able to develop collections for all the paper items in the Hayden Planetarium Collection. When we look at one of our previous disorganized rows of boxes we find that – wow! – it doesn’t look so disorganized any more.

While today was spent mostly correcting any errors we thought we had made in the spreadsheet and on the shelves, we did make a discovery elsewhere that’s pertinent to our collection and to our childhoods. As you may know, Titanic is being re-released this week. As you may not know, James Cameron was convinced he had to alter the night sky in one of the final scenes of the film by AMNH’s very own Neil deGrasse Tyson. Watch Tyson discuss this below.

Today I spent some time looking into the box marked Biographical Materials. This is only one of the eighteen boxes of the John Treadwell Nichols’ collection that I’ve been cataloguing this spring. The Biographical Materials section generally takes up a folder or two in collections that center around an individual, and it generally consists of letters between the individual’s relatives and the institution acquiring the personal materials. Although it’s surprising to see the difference in the font, the speech, and the tone, the most jarring thing about the Biographical Materials is realizing how the world really saw the person. In the case of John Treadwell Nichols, the majority of the folder was devoted to the correspondence between his youngest son, David G. Nichols, and various naturalists around the United States.

During his career here at the Museum, John Treadwell Nichols not only over-saw the development of the Department of Herpetology and Ichthyology when it was organized in 1909, but he became the first curator of the newly separated Department of Ichthyology in 1919 after Bashford Dean stepped down. In addition, Nichols founded the American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists (ASIH) and its journal, Copeia, out of his small office here in 1913 while still in his twenties.

The letters in this box between David G. Nichols and the zoologists around the United States date from the early to mid-eighties. Interest in the founding of Copeia had begun to emerge among the zoologist community as the ASIH publication approached its 75th Anniversary. However, in the letters addressed to David, the members confess that they haven’t found any information relating to Nichols and the journal’s founding. A zoologist from Ohio State University observed that even the Museum of Natural History didn’t have a collection of Nichols’ records and “kn[e]w nothing of his files” or their whereabouts. This lack of information on John Treadwell Nichols was shocking, when he contributed hundreds of articles and was President of ASIH during the early thirties in addition to his position as curator for the Museum.

The responses from David G. Nichols introduced a portion of his father’s life that his personal journals and letters hadn’t conveyed. In one letter David, the youngest of Nichols’ four children, recalled his childhood and the relationship with his father. Whereas his siblings had lost their interest in zoology and instead “emerged into the business world” after college, David was removed from high school during his sophomore year and spent the next few years collecting mammals for the Museum throughout North America and Europe. On the outset of World War II, David didn’t even have a high school diploma but had traveled extensively around the world. Despite that his father and he “were unusually close along a number of dimensions…spending much field time together studying mammals and birds,” he never knew about his father’s involvement with ASIH or the journal until a Museum lecturer took him aside and told him.

In addition to his father’s modesty however, letters also alluded to an “isolation” between John Treadwell Nichols and his peers in the fields of Ichthyology or Herpetology. One especially sad letter dated November 18, 1987 from James W. Atz, a Curator Emeritus of the Museum, apologized to Nichols’ son for “these slights and neglect” by the scientific community to his father’s memory. Atz went on to observe that despite Nichols’ accomplishments, “your Father became increasingly isolated” from the two fields he’d been so instrumental in organizing. The entire field, including Charles Breder Jr. a fellow ichthyologist whom Nichols co-authored many articles with and Carl Hubbs who took over as editor of Nichols’ journal, he concluded, “rather discounted your Father’s accomplishments.” It was sad to think that the isolation of his waning years should obscure the rest of his career.

The saddest part—conveyed by the various requests made by zoologists and other scientists on David G. Nichols for his father’s personal records—was that Nichols had become relatively unknown and undocumented after his death, despite how successful and esteemed ASIH and Copeia had become. At the end of the letter, Atz made a revealing analogy when he compared the legacies of Nichols and his peer, Breder. Both of these men became isolated for the field of ichthyology in the years preceding their deaths, but Breder made sure a friend wrote his obituary so he would “not suffer the final dishonor of having that duty performed” by a stranger or a competitor in his field.

This observation illustrates the importance of archives. In the case of John Treadwell Nichols, his life and contributions could’ve been contained in a bibliography or an obituary. The American Museum of Natural History has a brief file on him consisting of a few newspaper articles, printed interviews, and various copies of his obituary. So why can’t this replace a collection of Nichols’ personal materials?

This file is a collection of people writing on Nichols’ life. That’s history, but is it enough? The file doesn’t cover any of the contrasting views I encountered in the Biographical Materials. There’s nothing about how his reputation soured among the scientific community during the last years of his life, and there’s very little on the nature of his relationships with his family, friends, or even peers.

I believe, and I don’t think many would disagree, that archival collections are much more reliable at capturing the true nature of a person or an event—the different threads and contradictions, etc—than history. Archival collections aren’t accessible to everyone and so the historians process the information and analyze it for the public. They aren’t objective, and two historians looking at the same material can come up with different conclusions. That’s how history changes and brings life to the past, and archives fuel these debates. Without archives, history would be at a standstill. If we destroyed a collection after someone wrote on it, then that person would get the last word. If interest hadn’t reemerged for John Treadwell Nichols, there would only be a collection of obituaries. All the other views and aspects of the man would die with his relatives, his friends, and his peers. Everything would be gone. I almost consider the archives alive because the same materials can be analyzed so differently. A few years from now, another intern might discuss Biographical Materials and propose that this reveals something entirely different about Nichols’ personality. Who knows?