Not everything is at it appears in the American Museum of Natural History. (Credit: AMNH / Tara Conry)
The museum nearly closed
In the early days of the museum, the exhibits were not nearly as sophisticated or interesting as they are today. "It was more of a collection of "cabinets of curiosities," says museum docent Vickie Costa. It started out as just a collection of exhibits inside the Central Park Arsenal and finally moved into its first building in 1877. But not long after that, the museum was in jeopardy of closing because it was considered "boring," Costa said. "The trustees were told to shut it down, because people weren't coming here." But rather than giving up, Morris K. Jesup, then the president of the museum, launched into a "golden age of exploration," Costa added. From 1880 to 1930, the museum was involved in several expeditions around the world that led to the discovery of the North Pole, dinosaur fossils in Asia and many more breakthroughs. And with each finding the museum's collections improved and expanded, and the people came.
You can say 'I do'
If you ever dreamed of performing your first dance as a newlywed under a giant blue whale, the museum can make that happen. Many might not know that private events including weddings and bar mitzvahs are hosted here. The museum has its own in-house caterer, and multiple venues that can be rented out. There's been receptions in the Hall of Ocean Life, sit-down dinners in the Hall of Dinosaurs and cocktail parties in the Hall of African American Animals, where guests mingle around a herd of elephants.
The history of the museum itself is revealed
When you step inside the Hall of Northwest Coast Indians on the first floor, you're not just getting a glimpse into the history of American Indians. The exhibit also sheds light on the museum's own history as the hall itself is more than a century old. It first opened in 1896 and is part of the original building. As the museum grew it simply built expansions onto the existing structure that was erected in the 1870s. Today, the museum is made up of 25 interconnected buildings.
Why do the animals look so terrifying? Read on:
Ever wondered how they get those animal statues that appear in the dioramas throughout the museum to look so life-like? Well, are you sitting down? Those models look realistic because they are real. They were made using the actual skin, teeth and bones of real animals found (and killed) in the wild. "That's how science was done, down the barrel of a gun," museum dosent Costa says. Carl Akeley, considered a pioneer of modern taxidermy, developed a new technique at the turn of the 20th century. Instead of stuffing the animal carcasses with straw, he used clay to create hollow molds of the actual specimens and measurements taken in the field. The animal's skin, when tanned, would fit like a glove. Costa says the museum has since discontinued its use of taxidermy, so it goes to great lengths to preserve these rare pieces.
Lucy's Beatles' connection
Everyone knows Lucy. This popular exhibit in the museum's Hall of Human Origins features the 3.18-million-year-old bones from a single individual, presumably female. "Lucy" is one of the most complete skeletons found to date from the early hominids that flourished between 4 and 2 million years ago. But do you know the origin of Lucy's name? When scientists discovered her in 1974, they didn't christen the skeleton after one of their spouses or children. They called her "Lucy," because while they were celebrating their incredible find they were blasting the Beatles' song "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds," Costa said.
Credit: Nekenasoa via Flickr (CC BY-SA)
The whale had a nip-tuck
You may have noticed that the giant, 94-foot-long blue whale suspended above your head in the Hall of Ocean Life is looking more svelte these days. That's because it's had some cosmetic work including a nip-tuck. For more than 30 years, the model that the museum had been displaying had been pretty factually inaccurate. When the piece was created, the only information researchers had to go off of was measurements taken of a dead, decaying whale that washed ashore a beach in 1925 on Georgia Island. Once they were able to study a living version of the mammal, they realized that they needed to make some adjustments. As part of a massive renovation of the hall in the early 2000s, sculptors shaved down the whale's bulging eye sockets, trimmed the tail, corrected the blowhole with a protective lip around it, added a navel, and applied more than 25 gallons of fresh paint.
Credit: Kerry Brown / 20th Century Fox Films Corp.
The truth about 'Night at the Museum'
Although the 2006 "Night at the Museum" movie did include some scenes that had been filmed outside the actual American Museum of Natural History, none of the interior shots were done on location. They were actually filmed in Vancouver on a set that was designed to resemble parts of the museum. To recreate the look and feel, the creators visited the museum in Manhattan and took copious amounts of notes and photos, according to museum officials. And after the movie opened, the museum saw a 20 percent increase in visitors during that holiday season.
Credit: Getty Images ; Charles Tilford via Flickr
Celebs visit there too
The museum can make for a great date especially if you're able to arrange an exclusive after-hours tour for you and your beau. That's what the wife of New York Yankees pitcher CC Sabathia did in 2012. For Valentine's Day, Amber Sabathia surprised her hubby with a private tour of the museum after it closed to the public. The tour included a stop in the Hall of Gems, a museum official said. The couple posed for a photo in front of a fake dinosaur near the main entrance of the museum, which Amber shared on Twitter.
What's 100 percent real?
On the flip side, only 85 percent of what you see in the dinosaur exhibits on the museum's fourth floor are real. But there is one piece there that is 100-percent authentic. To find it you'll have to have look down at the base of one of the dinosaurs: The Glen Rose Trackway (pictured above on the right) is as real as it gets, according to Costa. This 107-million-year-old series of fossilized dinosaur footprints was excavated from the bed of the Paluxy River in Texas in 1938.
You can sleep over
If you do want to stake out the museum overnight to see for yourself if anything springs to life, the museum will let you -- for a price. The museum has hosted a number of "Night at the Museum" events in recent years, letting kids and their families sleep over. But starting in December 2014, it also began offering an adults-only version of the program open to those 21 years or older. At $350 per person, the sleepover includes a champagne reception with a buffet and live jazz music, a flashlight tour, special presentations and the chance to sleep under the giant whale in the Hall of Ocean Life. Oh, and attendees are free to roam the museum on their own.
Credit: Kerry Brown; 20th Century Fox
The film characters aren't all there
Don't even attempt to roam the museum trying to find every single real-life character portrayed in the "Night at the Museum" films; you'll never find them all. That's because many of them, including Sacajawea, Pharoah Ahkmenrah and Atilla the Hun (pictured above), are not nor have they ever been on display in the museum.
Meet the real Indiana Jones
One man at the center of many of these expeditions was Roy Chapman Andrews, who is believed to be the inspiration for the Indiana Jones character. Andrews worked for the museum during the early 1900s, starting out as an assistant and working his way up to director. His early work focused on studying whales at sea. But he is most famous for leading the historic expeditions through Mongolia's Gobi Desert, where his team discovered many new mammal and dinosaur fossils, including the first nests of dinosaur eggs, according to the museum. You'll find his photo hanging inside the museum.
The big jewel heist
One of the greatest jewel heists of the 20th century took place inside the museum. On the night of Oct. 29, 1964, Jack Roland Murphy, also known as "Murph the Surf," and Allan Dale Kuhn broke into the museum by scaling a fence, going up a fire escape to the fifth floor, creeping along a narrow ledge and swinging down to the fourth floor on a rope, the New York Times reported. (Murphy and Kuhn had spent a week visiting the museum to study its layout.) From the museum's Morgan Hall of Gems, they stole $410,000 worth of jewels including the 563.35-carat star of India (pictured above), one of the world's largest start sapphires, the Times reported. The estimated loss would be equivalent to millions today, the report said. A museum official later revealed to the press that the burglar alarms on the glass cases had been inoperative for years and the windows had been left open a crack. The burglars were caught soon after, however, when a tipster who had shared an elevator with them the day of the heist told police he overheard suspicious-looking men discussing a museum, according to the Times.
Credit: Youtube / AMNH
You can find the "dum dum" head
That said, you can find some of the items featured in the "Night at the Museum" (pictured above) inside the museum, including the "Easter Island Head," the sculpture that called Ben Stiller's character "dum dum" in the first film after it was brought to life. It's actually a replica of one of the "moai" that were discovered off the coast of Chile on Rapa Nui or "Easter Island." The sculptures featured defied ancestors.
This one was made from a mold secured during a museum expedition in the 1930s and is located in the Margaret Mead Hall of Pacific Peoples.
On the third floor, you'll also find the white-headed capuchin monkey that most likely inspired the character of Dexter. Elsewhere in the museum, you can seek out Genghis Khan, T-Rex and many of the animals seen in the movie, too.
Credit: AMNH / Tara Conry
That's not T-Rex's real head
What's got a bigger head than Kanye West? T-Rex. The dinosaur's skull is so heavy that its body couldn't hold it up, Costa said. The skull you see mounted atop the Tyrannosaurus rex that stands inside the museum's Hall of Saurischian Dinosaurs is actually fake. The real head is inside a glass case on display nearby.