Haunting Museums: The Strange and Uncanny Stories Behind the Most Mysterious Exhibitsby John Schuster
The spectacularly successful move A Night at the Museum was a fantastic look at the off-hours wonders of the American Museum of Natural History. However, some of the real behind-the-scenes stories are more fantastic than anything a screenwriter could dream up. Haunting Museums covers these overlooked bits of history including curses, mistaken/i>/i>… See more details below
The spectacularly successful move A Night at the Museum was a fantastic look at the off-hours wonders of the American Museum of Natural History. However, some of the real behind-the-scenes stories are more fantastic than anything a screenwriter could dream up. Haunting Museums covers these overlooked bits of history including curses, mistaken dinosaurs, conspiracy plots of the founding fathers, spectral evidence of the afterlife, and other unsettling matters on full display.
Contents include: The Carnegie Sauropods, Or Bring Me the Head of Apatosaurus Louisae – the story of a dinosaur on display for close to a half a century with the wrong head.
What's on that Broad Stripe with Those Bright Stars? – the quizzical mark on the flag that is known as the Star Spangled banner.
The 1897 Living Eskimo Exhibit – where living people were put on display and turned over to the taxidermist for "preservation" after they died
Man-eaters at the Museum: The Lions That Stopped a Railroad – the story of the Maneless lions made legendary by the movie the Ghost in the Darkness
So Where is Amelia Earhart? – the exhibit at the Smithsonian Air and Space museum of the most famous missing aviatrix of all time.
Along with many other entertaining and fantastic stories.
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Read an Excerpt
Museums—and Why Haunting Them Is a Good Thing
You say the word and what comes to mind.
A dusty old compendium of stationary exhibits that pale next to their Disneyfied theme park brethren?
A stodgy old gallery of oils and marble that—to paraphrase Denis Leary's character in the remake of The Thomas Crown Affair—only really concern some very silly rich people?
A foreboding lair of the unknown where something long dead comes to life?
(Okay, maybe I've been watching too many straight-to-video releases late at night on the Sci-Fi Channel.)
Okay, but what does the dictionary say?
Museum: A building, place, or institution devoted to the acquisition, conservation, study, exhibition, and educational interpretation of objects having scientific, historical, or artistic value. From the Latin meaning a temple of the Muses, hence, a place of study.
Hmm . . . "a temple of the Muses"?
Muses: the heavenly source of inspiration.
What better word origin for museums!
Both an homage to the past and an inspiration for the future.
But enough about generalities and misconceptions—museums are places of learning, inspiration, and fun . . . but they are also places of mystery and wonder.
Indeed, some of the most famous museums themselves inspire questions about their origins that are worthy of Trivial Pursuit, such as:
What famous museum owes its endowment to an "heirless legacy"?
What famous museum owes its endowment to a department store?
And, what the heck was Robin Williams doing playing Teddy Roosevelt in Night at the Museum?
Easy answers all.
The first: What famous museum owes its endowment to an "heirless legacy"?
The answer: The Smithsonian.
According to the official history of the institute:
In 1826, James Smithson, a British scientist, drew up his last will and testament, naming his nephew as beneficiary. Smithson stipulated that, should the nephew die without heirs (as he would in 1835), the estate should go "to the United States of America, to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men."
The motives behind Smithson's bequest remain mysterious. He never traveled to the United States and seems to have had no correspondence with anyone here. Some have suggested that his bequest was motivated in part by revenge against the rigidities of British society, which had denied Smithson, who was illegitimate, the right to use his father's name. Others have suggested it reflected his interest in the Enlightenment ideals of democracy and universal education.
Smithson died in 1829, and six years later President Andrew Jackson announced the bequest to Congress. On July 1, 1836, Congress accepted the legacy bequeathed to the nation and pledged the faith of the United States to the charitable trust. In September 1838, Smithson's legacy, which amounted to more than 100,000 gold sovereigns, was delivered to the mint in Philadelphia. Recoined in U.S. currency, the gift amounted to more than $500,000.
After eight years of sometimes heated debate, an act of Congress signed by President James K. Polk on August 10, 1846, established the Smithsonian Institution as a trust to be administered by a Board of Regents and a Secretary of the Smithsonian.
The second: What famous museum owes its endowment to a department store?
The answer: The Chicago Field Museum.
From their official bio:
The Field Museum was incorporated in the State of Illinois on September 16, 1893, as the Columbian Museum of Chicago with its purpose the "accumulation and dissemination of knowledge, and the preservation and exhibition of objects illustrating art, archaeology, science and history." In 1905, the Museum's name was changed to Field Museum of Natural History to honor the Museum's first major benefactor, Marshall Field (whose department store chain also bears his name), and to better reflect its focus on the natural sciences. In 1921 the Museum moved from its original location in Jackson Park to its present site on Chicago Park District property near downtown, where it is part of a lakefront Museum Campus that includes the John G. Shedd Aquarium and the Adler Planetarium. These three institutions are regarded as among the .nest of their kind in the world and together attract more visits annually than any comparable site in Chicago.
And the third: What the heck was Robin Williams doing playing Teddy Roosevelt in Night at the Museum?
The answer: As any visitor to New York's American Museum of Natural History knows, having a great old time.
But seriously, old Teddy was a great supporter of all things natural history as well as of the museum itself. Overlooked in terms of the .lm and memorial space within the museum itself, however, was Teddy's father (also named Theodore Roosevelt), who along with such New York bigwigs as Robert Colgate, J. Pierpont Morgan, Charles Dana, and numerous others were among the sponsoring founders of the museum back in 1869. (Though the museum itself was not officially opened until December 21, 1877, in the words of The New York Times: "The formal opening, by the President of the United States [Rutherford B. Hayes], of the new American Museum of Natural History, in Manhattan-square, at Seventy-seventh-street and Eighth-avenue, was the occasion yesterday afternoon of one of the most brilliant daylight assemblages that New York has ever seen.")
Museums such as these have been perfect settings for numerous big-budget films, even when meeting shooting schedules required changes of locale, such as in the .lm version of Relic (based on the thrilling novel by Preston and Child, who infuse their thrilling storytelling with insider info on the workings of the American Museum of Natural History in New York). New York was changed to Chicago, resulting in a trade of the American Museum of Natural History for Chicago's Field Museum
But even in person one cannot help but be enticed by the ever-present miasma of mystery that surrounds them.
Sometimes it's a bit of thrilling history—like in New York, with the heist tale of Murph the Surf, who stole the Star of India, or perhaps the thrilling tales of Frank "Bring 'Em Back Alive" Buck, who captured a rare giant cobra that became part of the museum's holdings; or maybe even the mysterious secret entrance to the museum that was supposed to be located in Central Park proper, where visitors would be able to metaphorically ascend out of the caves of darkness and ignorance up to the halls of the Muses.
Other times it's an exhibit that tries to unlock a secret of the past, or perhaps a chimerical remnant of another time whose meaning has been lost and is waiting to be rediscovered.
Museums come in all shapes and sizes—ranging from the classic palaces of the Field and the Smithsonian to the storefront of the Voodoo Museum in New Orleans and the twentieth-century warship the Hornet moored on the West Coast—and there are no limits to the variety of exhibits that are bound to raise a question or two.
Maybe it's a secret mark on a famous flag.
A famous inventor's dying breath.
An exhibit of real, living people.
A famous plane or two.
Or any old artifact of the past whose origins or influence (dare I say curse?) is shrouded in mystery.
Haunting museums is a fun pastime for tourists, families, students, and professionals.
A pleasant outing that entertains and informs.
But haunting museums has another meaning as well.
For every exhibit, there is a story; for some of them the past refuses to die.
Sometimes it's a question of history.
Sometimes it's a mystery yet to be solved.
And sometimes it's just so uncanny that it is just a wonder to behold.
Excerpted from HAUNTING MUSEUMS by John Schuster
Copyright © 2009 by The Literary Group International
Published in May 2009 by Tom Doherty Associates, LLC
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.
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