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

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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.


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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.

30 review for Dinosaurs in the Attic: An Excursion into the American Museum of Natural History

  1. 5 out of 5

    Elizabeth K.

    Now this was satisfying from nearly beginning to end. It's a look at New York City's natural history museum, split into two parts. The first is a more straightforward history of the institution, both how it came about as well as how the philosophy of managing an enormous natural history collection developed over the years. The second half is a look at some of the specific pieces in the collection, selected to illustrate various aspects of the mission of the museum. And, let me stress, it had A L Now this was satisfying from nearly beginning to end. It's a look at New York City's natural history museum, split into two parts. The first is a more straightforward history of the institution, both how it came about as well as how the philosophy of managing an enormous natural history collection developed over the years. The second half is a look at some of the specific pieces in the collection, selected to illustrate various aspects of the mission of the museum. And, let me stress, it had A LOT of Ripley's Believe It Or Not type trivia facts. Isn't that what really sparks the interest of a six year old kid in a museum in the first place? And did you know there are broken plaster casts of dinosaurs buried in Central Park? Coincidentally, this book was written in the mid 80s, which was about the time I first became very familiar with the AMNH, and shortly before the explosion of brightly colored and loud interactive displays at museums. I know I'm a curmudgeon, but I cannot express how much I hate that trend in museums. Oftentimes, the display is broken to begin with, and even if it's not, I'm put off by how manky all the buttons and screens are after having been touched by countless grabby people, many of whom would seem to have recently eaten greasy food. In addition to being generally informative, I loved this book because it created such a vivid picture of the natural history museums I remember. Museums where you were supposed to be quiet and contemplative and smell like floor polish. If you need me, I'll be yelling at kids to get off my lawn. Grade: A+ Recommended: To armchair naturalists, fans of natural history museums, and people who enjoy reminiscing about New York City cultural touchstones. 2008/11

  2. 4 out of 5

    Drew

    I have a whole new appreciation for the museum now. First of all, they is so much more there than I ever realized. There are 2 million butterflies, the skeletons of 100 elephants, 60,000 fish in jars of alcohol, a grasshopper found on the observation deck of the Empire State building, 4,000 Asian shadow puppets, 8 million anthropological artifacts, and the list goes on and on. A tiny fraction of all that's housed in the museum is out on display, which is shocking considering how much is on displ I have a whole new appreciation for the museum now. First of all, they is so much more there than I ever realized. There are 2 million butterflies, the skeletons of 100 elephants, 60,000 fish in jars of alcohol, a grasshopper found on the observation deck of the Empire State building, 4,000 Asian shadow puppets, 8 million anthropological artifacts, and the list goes on and on. A tiny fraction of all that's housed in the museum is out on display, which is shocking considering how much is on display. Not only is there an overwhelming amount of items at the museum, but I had no idea just how much work and devotion went into the collections. The dirt on the ground of any one of the many stuffed animal displays is the *actual* dirt from where than animal was collected. The entire scene is an exact replication, down to the way the tree branch is bent and the way the smoke from the volcano is billowing in the background. I had also always assumed that the museum just gather up collections from other people. I didn't realize just how much of the collection was gathered by the museum itself. The first half of the book is filled with tales of adventure from museum sponsored expeditions. In short, this is a fun read with lots of random tidbits. If you've been too, or plan to visit the American Natural History Museum, it's well worth a read.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Patty

    Douglas Prestonn was on the staff of the Amer. Museum of Natural History and authored a monthly column on the Museum in "Natural History' magazine. This was his first book. Lincoln Child was the editor. This is how the team of Preston/Child became partners in mystery writing. Child became so interested in the American Museum of Natural Hisotry and all it's many stories and secrets after reading Preston's book that he knew they had a winner if they could join forces and use the Museum in their my Douglas Prestonn was on the staff of the Amer. Museum of Natural History and authored a monthly column on the Museum in "Natural History' magazine. This was his first book. Lincoln Child was the editor. This is how the team of Preston/Child became partners in mystery writing. Child became so interested in the American Museum of Natural Hisotry and all it's many stories and secrets after reading Preston's book that he knew they had a winner if they could join forces and use the Museum in their mystery stories. Just the architecture of the building itself lends itself to the noir. I was captivated by the many secrets and facts that Preston presents to the reader to explain how the American Museum of Natural History was started, how the collections were amassed and the importance of the Natural History Museum. He envokes a visit to the Museum to view the articles he tells the facinating stories about. This was a well written review of some of the authors favorite aquisition stories or what he feels are the most interesting items in the different halls of the museum. He researched, investigated and interviewed to collect his information. Then he presented it in a very enjoyable read.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Heather

    Dinosaurs in the Attic is split into two parts. The first part gives an overview of the history of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. The second part is a collection of random stories about some of the museum’s artifacts. The writing style is excellent. I found it hard to put the book down which is quite unusual for me reading a nonfiction book. It made me want to go visit the museum one day (which I just may be able to arrange very soon during a long layover in NYC on my w Dinosaurs in the Attic is split into two parts. The first part gives an overview of the history of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. The second part is a collection of random stories about some of the museum’s artifacts. The writing style is excellent. I found it hard to put the book down which is quite unusual for me reading a nonfiction book. It made me want to go visit the museum one day (which I just may be able to arrange very soon during a long layover in NYC on my way to Ireland). I highly recommend it to anyone interested in the behind-the-scenes of museums.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Vanessa

    Great read, if a little outdated. Some of the halls he mentions (like the Hall of North American Birds) sadly, don't exist any more at the Museum. As a former volunteer, it was great to read about some of my favorite artifacts and how they got into their respective exhibits. Great read, if a little outdated. Some of the halls he mentions (like the Hall of North American Birds) sadly, don't exist any more at the Museum. As a former volunteer, it was great to read about some of my favorite artifacts and how they got into their respective exhibits.

  6. 5 out of 5

    itchy

    what joy it would be to visit the actual museum

  7. 5 out of 5

    Norman Birnbach

    Trapped (like everyone else) by the pandemic, I decided to read this book to get a sense of being somewhere else. Though published in 1986, the book does a great job of bringing to life the Museum of Natural History. I've been going there since I was a kid but it brought it to life for me even though I can't currently get there. The book told me stories behind the exhibits that were fascinating. Trapped (like everyone else) by the pandemic, I decided to read this book to get a sense of being somewhere else. Though published in 1986, the book does a great job of bringing to life the Museum of Natural History. I've been going there since I was a kid but it brought it to life for me even though I can't currently get there. The book told me stories behind the exhibits that were fascinating.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Diane

    As a kid I read any story I could get my hands on about archeological expeditions, survival under harsh conditions and intrepid explorers. I devoured drama in the Gobi desert; pack ice and bitter cold above the Arctic Circle and in Antarctica and more. Dinosaurs in the Attic is the adult version of those tales. The 1st half of the book details some of the expeditions underwritten and staffed by the U.S. Museum of Natural History; the 2nd part dives into some of the lesser known collections. Who As a kid I read any story I could get my hands on about archeological expeditions, survival under harsh conditions and intrepid explorers. I devoured drama in the Gobi desert; pack ice and bitter cold above the Arctic Circle and in Antarctica and more. Dinosaurs in the Attic is the adult version of those tales. The 1st half of the book details some of the expeditions underwritten and staffed by the U.S. Museum of Natural History; the 2nd part dives into some of the lesser known collections. Who knew a single, obscure species of bug could be so important? Best of all, Dinosaurs in the Attic shows these expeditions, these collections are valuable not just for the artifacts or numbers of species brought back to the Museum, but how they allow research into natural history and vanished cultures to continue and expand as new scientific analysis tools develop. Groundbreaking research was done on animal or insect species when the collections were first assembled; now new research can be done using DNA analysis, providing amazing new insights.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Megan

    Definitely an interesting read, although I was a bit underwhelmed at how much of the controversy surrounding the anthropology collection was brushed aside. There would have been space to delve a bit more into the ethical questions raised by museum collecting practices (particularly in the early days), so parts come across as being a bit tone-deaf. Whether or not this was the author's decision or an editorial choice is unclear, as he certainly addresses these issues in his fiction set in the muse Definitely an interesting read, although I was a bit underwhelmed at how much of the controversy surrounding the anthropology collection was brushed aside. There would have been space to delve a bit more into the ethical questions raised by museum collecting practices (particularly in the early days), so parts come across as being a bit tone-deaf. Whether or not this was the author's decision or an editorial choice is unclear, as he certainly addresses these issues in his fiction set in the museum. Otherwise, definitely a fun book for museum lovers.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Frank

    A really interesting and enjoyable look at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. This was written by Douglas Preston who worked at the museum for seven years and is also the author along with Lincoln Child of one of my favorite series of thriller novels, the Pendergast stories. I can see now where Preston obtained a lot of his background information for the series and for some of his other novels such as Tyrannosaur Canyon and The Ice Limit. Of course, many of the Pendergast s A really interesting and enjoyable look at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. This was written by Douglas Preston who worked at the museum for seven years and is also the author along with Lincoln Child of one of my favorite series of thriller novels, the Pendergast stories. I can see now where Preston obtained a lot of his background information for the series and for some of his other novels such as Tyrannosaur Canyon and The Ice Limit. Of course, many of the Pendergast stories took place in the museum including Relic, Reliquary, Dance of Death, and Book of the Dead. The museum is also the setting for the popular movie Night at the Museum starring Ben Stiller and Robin Williams. The book chronicles how the museum came to be and how its many collections were obtained. In its early years, the museum sponsored expeditions to obtain dinosaur fossils, acquire specimens from all over the world including Africa, South America, and Asia, and to explore uncharted areas of the earth like the Arctic. Much insightful and interesting information about the explorers and museum curators is included. One of the most interesting was Roy Chapman Andrews who was the real person who Indiana Jones was modeled after. He led an expedition for the museum to Outer Mongolia in search of dinosaur fossils and the missing link which was quite successful. Along the way he had to fight off bandits...he dressed with a gun at his hip and a rifle at the ready. The book goes on to describe the museum's many collections including fossils, mammals, insects, birds, reptiles, anthropological exhibits, meteorites, and gems. Another interesting story related tells of the great jewel robbery of 1964 where many of the museum's priceless jewels were stolen (very reminiscent of Dance of Death by Preston & Child). Overall, I really enjoyed this and would recommend it to anyone interested in natural history or any fan of the Preston/Child novels.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Sheila

    This book is a fun punch bowl of facts about one of my favorite museums. But, there is one turd swimming around in it: a casual attitude about the racism built into institutions of this type. Example: in the introduction, the author boasts that the AMNH includes in its collection "...100 complete elephants, and the largest skeletal collection of Manhattan aborigines, among others." Try substituting the word "Jews" for "Manhattan Aborigines" and you can imagine the uproar that would understandabl This book is a fun punch bowl of facts about one of my favorite museums. But, there is one turd swimming around in it: a casual attitude about the racism built into institutions of this type. Example: in the introduction, the author boasts that the AMNH includes in its collection "...100 complete elephants, and the largest skeletal collection of Manhattan aborigines, among others." Try substituting the word "Jews" for "Manhattan Aborigines" and you can imagine the uproar that would understandably follow such insensitivity. Keep in mind that whites would sometimes cut the heads off Native warriors fallen on the battlefield and sell their heads to museums. While Preston writes extensively about how a white scientist went unpunished for the murder of his Indigenous guide in the Arctic, he sweeps the dirty story of the Museum's treatment of a little Inuk boy under the rug. In 1897 Robert E. Peary deposited six Indigenous people from northern Greenland at the Museum - living specimens for "scientific" study AND public display. Minik's father was among the four who died within the first year, and the Museum lied to the 7 year old Minik about what they were doing with his father's remains. See the book "Give Me My Father's Body" https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/1... The statue in front of the Museum - Teddy Roosevelt (who helped decimate the elephant population of Africa) depicts the President astride a horse, with a Native American and an African standing (sans horses) next to him. This says it all: the white man uber alles. Native activists and their allies have demanded its removal. Getting rid of this statue would be an act of education and redemption. As well, the Museum should 'fess up to its crimes, return the sacred remains of the Indigenous peoples it has callously harvested along with insects, monkeys, and rocks, and apologize profusely and publicly for its role in the suppression of Native peoples and people of color around the globe. It's a great place for learning, the Museum, and it needs to learn a few lessons itself. Preston's book is not a help in this regard.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Kate

    "Dinosaurs in the Attic is a chronicle of the expeditions, discoveries, and scientists behind the greatest natural history collection ever 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." ~~back cover Very thorough, starting with the efforts to get the Museum built at all, then going on to highlight famous scientists, incr "Dinosaurs in the Attic is a chronicle of the expeditions, discoveries, and scientists behind the greatest natural history collection ever 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." ~~back cover Very thorough, starting with the efforts to get the Museum built at all, then going on to highlight famous scientists, incredible expeditions, and fantastic finds and their effect on scientific knowledge.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Don LeClair

    I have love Douglas Preston for all of his fiction writing over the years. This was a fascinating book on the American Museum of Natural History in New York. I wish I had read this before his novel Relic, as it provides a great perspective on the size and scope of the museum, that hosted parts of several fiction books later in his life. Having sections to talk about the some of the discoverers and collectors before he talks about the major departments really helps to bring the whole place to lif I have love Douglas Preston for all of his fiction writing over the years. This was a fascinating book on the American Museum of Natural History in New York. I wish I had read this before his novel Relic, as it provides a great perspective on the size and scope of the museum, that hosted parts of several fiction books later in his life. Having sections to talk about the some of the discoverers and collectors before he talks about the major departments really helps to bring the whole place to life. I have not been to the museum for a few years, but now I really want to get back!

  14. 4 out of 5

    Gregory D.

    A fascinating, surprisingly fast-paced read from the author of The Lost City of the Monkey God. Much like the early hisyory of archaeology, early paleontology and natural history was one part science, one part the work of gentlemen adventurers and one part hucksterism...all which playef a part in creating one of the greatest natural history collections in the world. I was surprised at how interesting thus book really was!

  15. 5 out of 5

    Tri

    Although it has plenty of interesting facts, the racism in this book is disgusting. The continued use of the slur e***** to reference Inuit people is one example. The author (as well as the museum itself) glorifies practices of “exploration” that are inherently racist and damaging to nature and Indigenous people. The book does seem to mourn the loss of Native cultures though, but still talks about murders and massacres with no emotion. Very off putting.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Jill Zarcone

    I honestly didn't "finish" this book. I wanted to but I got much more interested in the second part of the book featuring the actual behind the scenes stories of the museum, that I skipped the first part only after a few chapters. And then I was selectively skimming the second part. But I do like Preston's writing. Very approachable and personable. I honestly didn't "finish" this book. I wanted to but I got much more interested in the second part of the book featuring the actual behind the scenes stories of the museum, that I skipped the first part only after a few chapters. And then I was selectively skimming the second part. But I do like Preston's writing. Very approachable and personable.

  17. 4 out of 5

    matteo

    Parts of this book are absolutely, incredibly fascinating. The stories, the histories, the background, the escapades. Some are heroic. Some are absolutely batshit insane. And some are so astonishingly boring. I just could not get into a rhythm with this book, and it took me six months to read the whole thing.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Kate

    A fun romp through the American Museum of Natural History which provides the reader with a history of the museum itself, some of its more interesting acquisitions and some of the colorful people who have been associated with the AMNH since its inception.

  19. 4 out of 5

    John Lester

    Surprisingly a interesting read. This not what I had first suspected when I ordered this eBook. It has tons of facts and figures but they are backed-up with the stories of how they came about. Amazing stories how much people will risk to procure items for collections.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Dustin

    Fun read for a fascinating museum. Preston gives the detail and history to some of AMNH's most prominent items that you would otherwise not get. But also the behind-the-scenes look at the work being done at the museum on a daily basis. Fun read for a fascinating museum. Preston gives the detail and history to some of AMNH's most prominent items that you would otherwise not get. But also the behind-the-scenes look at the work being done at the museum on a daily basis.

  21. 4 out of 5

    James Bracciante

    A quick and fun read with an eclectic mixture of origin stories surrounding the artifacts in the Museum of Natural History as well as the Museum itself.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Lori

    Ranging from events around the museums founding to curious tales related to museum artifacts, Douglas Preston's Dinosaurs in the Attic is a must-read for anyone who loves museums. Ranging from events around the museums founding to curious tales related to museum artifacts, Douglas Preston's Dinosaurs in the Attic is a must-read for anyone who loves museums.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Amanda

    There are some amazing stories in here and, depending on your interest, enough to keep you entertained through the majority of the book. Slightly outdated but a lovely companion.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Caty Cobos

    This book talks about so many interesting topics, adventures, anecdotes. It's a magical book. This book talks about so many interesting topics, adventures, anecdotes. It's a magical book.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Kimberly

    Surprisingly good. It makes me want to go there again to "re-experience" everything. Surprisingly good. It makes me want to go there again to "re-experience" everything.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Christopher

    Good book with interesting stories about the Museum. Sadly outdated.

  27. 4 out of 5

    andrea

    I love these kinds of museums, love the Field, great stories

  28. 5 out of 5

    Steve

    An interesting trip through the dinosaur fields of the west to the reaches of Outer Mongolia. Lots of interesting stories.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Kate

    Highly enjoyable look at the birth and growth of one of the greatest museums of Natural History in the world. In the age of social media and tweets where even our most recent history has been dis-guarded for the latest antics of an over hyped personality....looking at the very beginnings of our universe, the beginnings of life, the history of mankind and its now lost tribes and cultures and the artifacts that inform us of their existence, the animals now as extinct as their habitats might seem u Highly enjoyable look at the birth and growth of one of the greatest museums of Natural History in the world. In the age of social media and tweets where even our most recent history has been dis-guarded for the latest antics of an over hyped personality....looking at the very beginnings of our universe, the beginnings of life, the history of mankind and its now lost tribes and cultures and the artifacts that inform us of their existence, the animals now as extinct as their habitats might seem unimportant. For many of us nothing is as intriguing as looking for answers to many questions that can only be found by looking at our past. A total accounting of the collections and the research that they engender would exhaust the average reader and would likely create volumes and volumes of books. Douglas Preston has culled through the massive amount of information and presented a taste of what has and is occurring in every department of this museum, making us familiar with the explorers and collectors who were unknown to us. Interesting antidotes on some of the great expeditions that held the world in thrall in the late 1800s and early 1900s when the public and even explorers knew so little of the world. It provides a brief history of some of the great personal collectors and what drove them to give up the collections so precious to them. "...each object in the museum -- just as in the world at large -- carries with it a rich history, of information, and of meaning." A wonderful appetizer for the mind. It is no wonder that this book was so welcome by so many.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Megan

    I’m a history geek, I’ll admit it. English and History were always my favorite subjects in school, and my history courses in college are so far the only ones I’ve ever looked forward to. I’d love to major in some form of history if I could, and when I go back to college I’m going to seriously consider it. With that in mind, this book seemed like it was written just for me. I wish I had read it on the plane ride to New York so that I could step into the halls of the American Museum of Natural His I’m a history geek, I’ll admit it. English and History were always my favorite subjects in school, and my history courses in college are so far the only ones I’ve ever looked forward to. I’d love to major in some form of history if I could, and when I go back to college I’m going to seriously consider it. With that in mind, this book seemed like it was written just for me. I wish I had read it on the plane ride to New York so that I could step into the halls of the American Museum of Natural History with this book fresh on my mind. I want to make a trip there, now. Instead, I’m contenting myself by looking up books on dinosaurs in the library catalog, like a ten-year-old. Reading Douglas Preston’s book is like taking a step back in time to the days when explorers were hardy men who would stop at nothing to secure specimens for exhibits, record the myths of a tribe long-dying, take photographs of the most remote places on Earth, and travel in the footsteps of dinosaurs. He chronicles the history of the museum, picking out the most fascinating bits and pieces, yet I’m sure he’s left information out. There are so many stories here, and only so much space to print them. It left me with the sure feeling that behind the doors of the museum are hundreds of thousands of stories. The second part of the book is a wander about the museum, exploring little-known nooks and crannies and, again, telling some fascinating stories – the stories, again, straight out of movies: jewel thieves, skeletonized horses, birds and amphibians and reptiles and mammals and humans galore. It’s fascinating, thrilling, and sad. I greatly enjoyed this book and I’m sure I’ll be checking it out again in the future to reread.

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