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Peek Inside The Fossil-Filled Bowels Of The American Natural History Museum

Mastodon skulls, cryogenics, and more images from Fast Company’s behind-the-scenes tour.

Last week, a group of around 30 attendees of Fast Company’s Innovation By Design Conference descended upon New York’s American Natural History Museum to get a special backstage tour. Our photographers were on hand to capture the sights: a room stuffed with cryogenically frozen flesh of tens of thousands of animal and plant species, and an entire floor of the museum’s warehouse turned over to mastodon skulls.

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Although AMNH’s cryogenics facility is only about the size of a largish dorm room–heck, it even looks with one, except with cryotanks instead of bunks–it contains more than 80,000 different specimens. “In this room, you’ll find the greatest volume of biodiversity on the planet,” the facility director George Amato told us. But although the room seems small to hold so many specimens, Amato says AMNH has lots of room for growth: resembling large aluminum tubs, the eight cryogenic chambers in this small room alone are enough to hold as many as 1 million specimens.


According to Amato, the museum’s cryogenics facility has been designed to safeguard against the “tragedy of lost biodiversity” that has plagued researchers from the moment they started sticking their slides in the fridge. Many researchers depend upon frozen samples to do their work, but the problem with relying on any electrical freezer is that it will eventually fail, and your samples will end up as a pile of goo melting out from underneath the refrigerator door. But AMNH’s cryogenic facility contains multiple fail-safes, including private electrical generators and a tank filled with 3,000 gallons of liquid nitrogen on the premises. The AMNH believes it will be able to dependably archive frozen samples for the future to come. (Fun fact: Amato says he was once asked by the Secret Service what would happen if that 3,000 gallon tank of liquid nitrogen was hit with a rocket-propelled grenade. President Obama came to visit the next day.)


In addition to the cryogenics facility, Innovation By Design attendees were able to get a special guided tour of AMNH’s labyrinthine fossil collection, courtesy of curator Carl Mehling . If you’ve ever seen Raiders of the Lost Ark, you probably remember the most iconic scene in the entire film, in which the mythical Ark of the Covenant is wheeled into a massive government warehouse filed with mysterious artifacts. That’s the scope of AMNH’s fossil warehouse. A full 99.8% of all of AMNH’s collection is stored in its subterranean warehouse; seven full floors of storage are turned over to mammal fossils alone. And amazingly, thousands of specimens have never even been examined; during our tour, Mehling showed us specimens from 1840 that hadn’t been so much as unwrapped in the last 160 years.

Check out some of the behind the scenes photos of mastodons, cryotanks, and ancient archeology finds in the slideshow above!

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