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Dinosaurs in the Attic: An Excursion Into…
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Dinosaurs in the Attic: An Excursion Into the American Museum of Natural… (original 1986; edition 1994)

by Douglas J Preston (Author)

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223777,168 (4.06)6
Member:wimstu
Title:Dinosaurs in the Attic: An Excursion Into the American Museum of Natural History
Authors:Douglas J Preston (Author)
Info:St. Martin's Griffin (1994), Edition: Reissue, 272 pages
Collections:Electronic
Rating:
Tags:Non Fiction, History, Museums

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Dinosaurs in the Attic: An Excursion into the American Museum of Natural History by Douglas Preston (1986)

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Dinosaurs in the Attic: An Excursion into the American Museum of Natural History by Douglas Preston

★★★★

Dinosaurs in the Attic is a chronicle of the expeditions, discoveries, and scientists behind the greatest natural history collection ever assembled – found at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. I love museums and I love books (obviously), so this was right up my alley. This book doesn’t delve into the most of the more known objects and people associated with the museum but those behind the scenes that made it what it is such as the collectors, explorers, and researchers. And what tales they are! Adventure, murder, and deceit – and that’s only in the first 60 pages. The first half of the book deals with the beginning of the museum while the second part deals with more “modern” technology and research. There were also 36 photos that were quite good and I enjoyed them.

It must be said that this book was written in 1986 so it is a little out of date and no doubt the museum has been updated to some extent since then not to mention the naming of some countries (for example, Zaire is mentioned in this book, a country that no longer exists). This was a very enjoyable book and I had trouble putting it down. It’s a subject that may sound boring to some but it was far from. My one annoyance was my Kindle copy I have. It’s fairly obvious that it didn’t convent properly in some places, such as words with “in” in them came through as “m” on my Kindle. So for example, “finalized” came out as “fmalized”. A minor bother that I was able to get through.
( )
  UberButter | Feb 9, 2016 |
An informative and awesome read! ( )
  oel_3 | Jan 17, 2016 |
This book is divided into three parts. In the first (fairly short) part the author discusses the founding of the museum, in the second he describes the major specimen-gathering expeditions organized by the museum, and in the third he takes the reader on a tour of the museum, including the parts unseen by the general public.

Douglas Preston is an excellent writer and manages to make anything he writes about sound interesting, even the history of the founding of the museum or the process of reducing a corpse to a skeleton. He introduces all the key personalities associated with the AMNH who’ve made it one of the premier natural history museums in the world, starting with Albert Bickmore who succeeded in getting the museum off the ground after two false starts (the first attempt failed when only $700 were collected for the future museum; the second was killed off by Tweed when he couldn’t see how he could profit from it and didn’t want to create a precedent). Bickmore, fresh from a three-year expedition to the East Indian archipelago during which he survived an earthquake, a fall into a crater of a volcano and a landslide, managed to impress even people Tweed couldn’t afford to offend, such as J. P. Morgan and Theodore Roosevelt. But it took Morris Jesup, a self-made millionaire with a sixth-grade education, to understand what would make the museum popular with the public, bring it an endowment and organize over a thousand expeditions to all the corners of the earth.

The golden age of exploration (1880-1930) was started by Franz Boas who wanted to prove the migration of men to the New World through the Bering Straight. He hired two Russians, Waldemar Borgoras and Waldemar Jochelson, who were exiled by the tsar to Siberia to collect data among the natives there. In the years to come they crisscrossed Siberia from the Chinese border to the Arctic by packhorses and sled dogs and on rafts, while Berthold Laufer, a German hired by Boas, collected data in China, undeterred even by the anti-foreign Boxer Rebellion. Boas himself did fieldwork among the Pacific Indians, collecting lots of valuable data, but regretting the necessity for numerous potluck dinners, casual chit-chat and other trappings of social life that he had to endure in the process. The Museum also funded a number of polar expeditions, including many of Robert Peary’s. Jesup made a deal with him, pulling strings to keep him on leave from the Navy in return for specimens for the museum, such as a 30-ton meteorite from Greenland, the largest ever recovered. Douglas Preston also describes the lively dinosaur wars between rivaling paleontologists, which escalated to such heights as to land them in tabloids – a spot now firmly secured by movie stars and politicians – and to shock their colleagues across the ocean – although why that would be, I cannot see, since, according to Bill Bryson’s descriptions in A History of Nearly Everything in the chapter appropriately titled “Science Red in Tooth and Claw” some British paleontologists of the time could be quite vicious themselves. A series of expeditions in Central Asia discovered the first dinosaurs’ eggs and fossils of early mammals which had co-existed with dinosaurs. Members of these expeditions had to contend with Mongolian bandits, Chinese civil wars and sandstorms so strong that after one of them the sandblasted windshields had to be knocked out of the vehicles to enable the drivers to see ahead. Preston says that the leader of these expeditions, Roy Chapman Andrews, was allegedly the real-life prototype of Indiana Jones. One of their vehicles carried a mounted machine gun, and “Andrews had no qualms about training his guns on an obstructive border guard or petty Mongolian bureaucrat to get what he wanted. As for bandits, he seemed to welcome an exciting confrontation.” Originally, Andrews obtained a job scrubbing the museum’s floors, then began collecting whales, eventually joined expeditions to Alaska and Japan, got an MA in biology and published several papers. It’s hard to imagine that today a janitor might be allowed to do scientific work – he’d just be told that it’s not in his job description. Then again, today someone with a Bachelor degree would probably not be able to get a foothold in a major scientific organization by way of scrubbing floors, to begin with – he’d be told that he’s overqualified.

The development of aviation made such huge and lengthy expeditions obsolete, with the single exception of the 1984-1985 expedition to isolated tabletop mountains in the Amazon which were so difficult to get to, that once the helicopters with the supplies couldn’t get through for 9 days, forcing the people on the mountains to make soup from their tiny bird specimens (preserving skins and skeletons for study, of course), while the people down below could resort to hunting a more plentiful menu of caimans and capybaras.

The third part of the book focuses on the work of various departments of the museum, their exhibits and their holdings not shown to the general public (about 99% of them). I learned from it that paleontologists today collect entire “fossil communities” (they can tell which bones had been in other creatures’ stomachs because these bones are etched with acid) and that dinosaurs became extinct before the asteroid impact. One photograph shows a team of paleontologists assembling a huge dinosaur from bone fragments the size of golfballs. The author writes that entomologists who study insects discover hundreds of new species during their careers. They also “often discover strange-looking structures on insects that they can’t even imagine the purpose of,” because they can’t take their specimens apart or even observe the behavior of the smaller ones. In the Meteorite Hall, there’s a fragment of the Allende meteorite which is older than the solar system, while the Minerals and Gems Hall contains the Star of India, a golfball-sized sapphire donated by J. P. Morgan, and an orange sapphire from Sri Lanka, as well as a ten-pound garnet disc found during the excavation of a sewer in Manhattan and a 596 lb topaz crystal from Brazil. The author describes a major burglary that once took place there, but nowadays they have a security system which had to be re-adjusted because it had been triggered by passing cockroaches.

This is a fascinating book which has taught me a lot about how anthropologists, biologists and paleontologists work and has made the museum’s collections much more meaningful to me. ( )
2 vote Ella_Jill | Jul 27, 2011 |
History of the natural Museum, NYC ( )
  pharrm | Jan 28, 2010 |
A fascinating read. I'd love to go and spend days or weeks there. Well written, but would have liked more pictures. ( )
  dreplogle | Sep 26, 2009 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0312104561, Paperback)

Dinosaurs in the Attic is a chronicle of the expeditions, discoveries, and scientists behind the greatest natural history collection every assembled. Written by former Natural History columnist Douglas Preston, who worked at the American Museum of Natural History for seven years, this is a celebration of the best-known and best-loved museum in the United States.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:17:32 -0400)

Dinosaurs in the Attic is a chronicle of the expeditions, discoveries, and scientists behind the greatest natural history collection every assembled. Written by former Natural History columnist Douglas Preston, who worked at the American Museum of Natural History for seven years, this is a celebration of the best-known and best-loved museum in the United States.… (more)

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