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The very first purchase Andrew Carnegie made for his Pittsburgh museum wasn’t a colossal dinosaur. It was the coffin and mummy of an Egyptian chantress of Amun, who was likely a temple singer from Dynasty 21, dating to 1069 B.C. These funerary objects are assigned accession number one, and the magnificent wooden coffin is a signature attraction in Walton Hall of Ancient Egypt, where it’s displayed inside a reconstructed tomb. Also included in the hall: a 3,900-year-old funerary boat believed to have been used to transport an ancient pharaoh’s body across the Nile where it was mummied and buried. Carnegie added the 32-foot craft to the museum’s growing treasures in 1901, despite not yet having the room to display it.
Every object in the museum’s vast collection is a time capsule, and, 123 years later, Carnegie Museum of Natural History has accumulated—through worldwide fieldwork, purchases, exchanges, and donations—more than 22 million, each with its own story. Some of the first cultural artifacts and scientific specimens to enter the collection provide a glimpse into the characters and the circumstances that helped shape the museum’s holdings, which span an extraordinary 465 million years. The museum’s oldest object and outlier, a chunk of banded iron formation, is more than 1 billion years old.
The late 19th-century natural history museum, as described by Carnegie, was a warehouse of “objects, rare, valuable, and historical.” Among the first items on Carnegie Museum’s books: the spoke of a wagon wheel that was blown to pieces by a nitroglycerine explosion; a cannonball found near old Fort Pitt; and a series of reproductions of the bronzes discovered at Pompeii, another gift from Carnegie. Not surprising, the museum also collected objects of Pittsburgh industries—ores and manufactured products made of tin, lead, and copper; specimens of iron and coke; and local wares forged from Carnegie steel.
Some early scientific sections flourished thanks to passionate volunteers; amphibians and reptiles, for example, didn’t have a full-time curator for 30 years. Other sections—birds, bugs, botany, and vertebrate paleontology among them—thrived from the start due to the interests and expertise of early museum leadership.
Then and now, the collections and the taxonomists who study and name them are on the frontlines of understanding and, ultimately, protecting biodiversity. And those millions of time capsules—they’re still producing scientific discoveries.
Much of the research that led to tighter controls on pesticide use in agriculture in the 1960s, for example, including the eventual banning of DDT, came about by comparing the thickness of eggshells of birds of prey in museum collections from the 19th and 20th centuries. Researchers needed specimens predating pesticides for comparison—and Carnegie Museum of Natural History’s robust collection of pre-World War II eggs proved to be a gold mine.
Three years before Diplodocus carnegii (aka Dippy the dinosaur) was a twinkle in Andrew Carnegie’s eye, a roughly 50-million-year-old fish fossil became the first specimen cataloged in the museum’s vertebrate paleontology collection, now world-famous for its Jurassic dinosaurs. Donated by Frank F. Nicola in 1896, it was discovered in the Green River Formation in Wyoming, one of the most important fossil sites for understanding the Eocene Epoch. While the collection that spans 465 million years is best known for its long-necked, plant-eating dinosaurs, they account for only a small fraction of the collection’s holdings, with 80 percent being mammals, 11 percent fish, and 5 percent reptiles, including an impressive 690 dinosaur fossils. Fossil fish are a strength of the collection due in large part to the early purchase of the Baron de Bayet Collection, one of the finest groupings of European fossils in North America, complete with squid, cuttlefish, and flying insects. William Jacob Holland, the museum’s second director, told Carnegie that the 1903 acquisition “will make our museum one of the Gibraltars of paleontological science in the world,” and it was indeed an early treasure of the museum, with many of the specimens still on view today in Dinosaurs in Their Time. Its acquisition led to the hiring of Percy E. Raymond, the museum’s first geologist, who set off on early field expeditions to Minnesota and Montana with museum dinosaur hunter Earl Douglass.
The museum’s first accessioned mammal, curiously enough, was a kangaroo donated in 1896. The following year, a museum committee was given $12,000 to acquire artifacts and specimens for display. Among the items purchased: a collection of 16 dissected skulls from various familiar animals, including a horse, sheep, rabbit, and dog, as well as from an ape, dolphin, and human. Each was dissected at every suture point and then wired together and mounted so that viewers could see how individual pieces fit together. For decades, the “exploding” skulls were prominently displayed side by side so museum visitors could compare bone structure. Over the next decade, the mammal collection grew to include 500 animals donated by big-game hunter Childs Frick, the eldest son of industrialist Henry Clay Frick and Adelaide Howard Childs. During two scientific expeditions to Africa, Frick, then a young biologist, collected and donated his finds that would eventually become the stars of the museum’s popular Hall of African Wildlife. It’s a gesture all the more remarkable considering that Frick’s father and Andrew Carnegie, once wildly successful business partners, had suffered a contentious falling out.
Birds of a Feather
A bald eagle inadvertently shot to death during the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863 was the first accessioned bird of the more than 206,000 cataloged in the museum’s collection. Donated by James J. Booth of Pittsburgh, part of the acquisition entry reads: 91 objects besides 4 lots of bullets and eagle killed on the battlefield. Collecting birds for Pittsburgh’s new science museum began before bird-watching and bird guides existed. As ornithologists tell it, when Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Museum started its pursuit, birds were still being identified through the barrel of a shotgun filled with “dust” to reduce damage to the specimens. In 1899, when ornithology was still mostly about inventorying birds, W.E. Clyde Todd was hired as an assistant in charge of recent vertebrates, which included birds, mammals, amphibians, reptiles, and fish. However, he was completely devoted to birds, and directed the budget accordingly. Todd, who was employed by the museum for 45 years, accessioned 136,295 specimens—roughly 66 percent of today’s collection. He was taken with the then-undescribed birds of South and Central America, but was unwilling to risk travel to the tropics after contracting a severe case of malaria in Washington, D.C., in 1896, and a warning by doctors to avoid hot climates. So, the thousands of birds that came to Pittsburgh from Costa Rica, Colombia, Venezuela, Brazil, and Bolivia were collected by professionals Todd commissioned. The egg collection also flourished under his direction, proving to be, in museum ornithologist Ken Parkes’ words, “a national treasure.”
By the time Carnegie Museum officially opened its doors to the public in 1895, a few generous collectors had already donated mineral specimens. Gustave Guttenberg, a curator at the local Academy of Art and Science, loaned his entire 550-piece collection and upon his death the following year, the museum purchased it, forming the core of its permanent mineral holdings. Andrew Carnegie also purchased the 12,000-specimen collection of William W. Jefferis, a West Chester, Pennsylvania, collector who had amassed one of the premier private collections in the country. It put the museum on the map as a mineral repository, and portions of the Jefferis collection are still displayed today—including an Arizona calcite still bearing its 1880s $2 price tag. In 1897, Andrew Carnegie struck pay dirt again, becoming the recipient of a rare and precious piece of yellowish-gold pseudomorph of hemimorphite after calcite, which was donated to the museum by A.L. Means. Encased behind glass in Hillman Hall of Minerals and Gems’ Masterpiece Gallery, and with only a handful in existence, it remains the signature piece of the collection.
The museum’s plant collection, known as the herbarium, includes more than half a million dried and pressed specimens from around the world, the earliest dating to 1728. It’s a National Regional Depository, which means it’s home to scientific evidence for identifying the region’s plants, determining invasive species, and more. John A. Shafer, a trained pharmacist and founding member of the Botanical Society of Western Pennsylvania, was the herbarium’s first caretaker. Before heading off to a long career at the New York Botanical Garden, he developed the earliest record for Allegheny County flora. His successor, Otto E. Jennings, was an influential botanist who explored the region with vigor—setting an environmental baseline by which to judge change or loss—and served not only as curator of botany but director of education and eventually director of the museum. In 1941, Jennings began an ambitious project with friend, lepidopterist, and then museum director Andrey Avinoff that culminated in the 1953 book Wild Flowers of Western Pennsylvania and the Upper Ohio Basin, based on his own lifelong study of the region. Jennings would travel in search of the perfect specimens to return to the museum for Avinoff to paint while they were still fresh and unwithered. Avinoff is said to have dropped everything he was doing upon Jennings’ return, staying through the night to paint the flowers from still life.
Carnegie Museum of Natural History’s section of invertebrate zoology (bugs) is a historic powerhouse in Lepidoptera, or butterflies and moths, thanks to a pair of active lepidopterists serving as museum directors for more than half of the museum’s existence: William Jacob Holland and Andrey Avinoff. Although he was more of a moth guy, Holland—who was also chancellor of the University of Pittsburgh and an ordained Presbyterian minister—wrote the book popularizing butterflies in America. His Butterfly Book (1898), which sold 5,000 copies in the first few weeks, and Moth Book (1903) are still in wide use. Holland donated his private collection of more than 250,000 specimens to the museum and obtained for it major international collections. Other early influential additions to the world-class collection: Andrew Carnegie’s purchase of the Knyvett Collection of Indian butterflies in 1893 and the purchase of Henry Ulke’s historic North American beetles collection in 1903, one of the largest and most significant on the continent. Then and now, the museum’s roughly 13 million bugs—everything from tropical grasshoppers from the Upper Oubangui River in the Congo Basin, to Mongolian crane flies, to ground beetles from Pittsburgh—make up its largest collection, which is among the largest and most prestigious collections of bugs in the New World.
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