Shelf Life: American Museum of Natural History Creates New Video Series on Its 33 Million Artifacts

I once spent a sum­mer as a secu­ri­ty guard at the Children’s Muse­um of Indi­anapo­lis. A won­der­ful place to vis­it, but my work­day expe­ri­ence proved dread­ful­ly dull. By far the high­light was being pulled off what­ev­er exhib­it I hap­pened to be guard­ing to assist in col­lec­tions, a cav­ernous back­stage area where untold trea­sures were shelved with­out cer­e­mo­ny. The head con­ser­va­tor con­fid­ed that many of these items would nev­er be sin­gled out for dis­play. The thrift store egal­i­tar­i­an­ism that reigned here was far more appeal­ing than the eye-catch­ing, edu­ca­tion­al sig­nage in the pub­lic area. From the obliv­ion of deep stor­age springs the poten­tial for dis­cov­ery.

How grat­i­fy­ing to learn that the 200 plus sci­en­tists employed by the Amer­i­can Muse­um of Nat­ur­al His­to­ry feel the same. As palen­tol­o­gist Mike Novacek, puts it in Shelf Life, the museum’s just launched month­ly video series:

You can make new dis­cov­er­ies in Col­lec­tions just like you can out in the field. You can walk around the cor­ner and see some­thing that no one’s quite observed that way before, describe a new species or a new fea­ture that’s impor­tant to sci­ence.

The insti­tu­tion can choose from among more than 33,430,000 good­ies, from ancient objects they’ve been care­ful­ly tend­ing for more than two cen­turies to the sam­ples of frozen tis­sue and DNA com­pris­ing the bare­ly 13-year-old Ambrose Mon­ell Cryo Col­lec­tion for Mol­e­c­u­lar and Micro­bial Research.

Gems and mete­orites!

Arrow­heads and gourds!

Ver­te­brates and inver­te­brates!

There’s tru­ly some­thing here for…


Wasp enthu­si­asts (you know who you are) can thrill to the sev­en and a half mil­lion spec­i­mens in sex researcher Alfred Kinsey’s Cynip­i­dae col­lec­tion. (They’re ready for their close up, Mr. DeMille. Famous as they are, the first episode passed them over in favor of a more pho­to­genic mock bee from the genus Criorhi­na.)

Future episodes will call upon in-house ichthy­ol­o­gists, pale­on­tol­o­gists, anthro­pol­o­gists, astro­physi­cists, and her­petol­o­gists to dis­cuss such top­ics as spec­i­men prepa­ra­tion, tax­on­o­my, and cura­tion. Stay abreast (and — bonus!- cel­e­brate Nero’s birth­day with tur­tles) by sub­scrib­ing to the museum’s youtube chan­nel.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

A Panoram­ic Vir­tu­al Tour of the Smith­son­ian Nation­al Muse­um of Nat­ur­al His­to­ry

Down­load the Uni­verse: A Dis­cern­ing Cura­tor for Sci­ence eBooks

How to Make a Mum­my — Demon­strat­ed by The Get­ty Muse­um

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, home­school­er, and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine. She goes into more detail about her short-lived stint as a muse­um secu­ri­ty guard in her third book, Job Hop­per. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday

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