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Special Collections

The Library's archives contain materials relating to the history of the Museum, its scientists and staff, scientific expeditions and research, Museum exhibitions, education, and general administration.

If you have any questions or would like to make an appointment to conduct research, please refer to our Special Collections Access and Policies.

Diagram illustrating the organizing principles of the AMNH Special Collections Archives
Diagram illustrating the organizing principles of the AMNH Special Collections Archives

Institutional Archives, Manuscripts and Personal Papers

The Archives consist mainly of correspondence, memos, reports, press releases, and other records associated with the administration of the Museum. The Archives also include manuscripts and personal papers of scientists and administrators associated with the Museum, and materials associated with a few notable individuals without formal Museum affiliation.

The Institutional Archives of the American Museum of Natural History provide an unusually complete and detailed record of the history and development of an American scientific institution, including nearly every letter sent or received by the Museum in its first 100 years.

The Early Administrative Records spans from 1864 to 1912 and contains the Museum’s charter, leases, letterpress copybooks, scrapbooks, and the earliest correspondence.

Correspondence and other administrative records continue in the Central Archives, spanning from the 1880s to the 1970s. With an estimated 370,000 items, measuring over 360 linear feet, the Central Archives is a unique body of records documenting the growth and history of the Museum from its founding. The collections include letters from many political, industrial, and scientific luminaries who were associated with the Museum, such as Theodore Roosevelt and his son U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., J.P. Morgan, Henry Fairfield Osborn, Charles Knight, Lincoln Ellsworth, Edward Drinker Cope, O.C. Marsh, Frederick Law Olmstead, and Roy Chapman Andrews, among many others. 

The Central Archives are organized and indexed according to subject and cross indexed by personal and corporate names. The index consists of over 121,000 cards which can be searched online (within the Museum network) by Subject Heading or by full text.

The Institutional Archives also contain the Museum’s Departmental Records from the Museum’s Science, Education, and Exhibition departments. Coverage spans from the 1880s to the present, but is incomplete; departmental participation in submitting records to this collection is voluntary.

The bulk of the Manuscript and Personal Papers collections consists of field notebooks, correspondence, manuscripts, and other personal papers associated with scientific staff and administrators of the Museum. Early Museum history is particularly well represented.

The Photograph Collection

The Photograph Collection consists of over one million b/w prints and negatives, color transparencies, and slides in formats ranging from 35mm to 11x14 inches. The images document scientific work worldwide in the fields of anthropology, archaeology, astronomy, geology, paleontology, and zoology. There are photographs from every continent on earth and photographs of the stars. The collection also documents Museum exhibition, Museum staff at work, and  images of objects and specimens from the Museum collections as well as illustrations from the Library's Rare Book Collection. 

The earliest negatives date from the late 1800's. This includes a collection of over 40,000 lantern slides that were once used for lectures and loaned to New York City schools. In addition, the Photographic Print Collection includes over 900 series of vintage photographic prints, totaling approximately 140,000 individual photographs. The collection includes 52 scrapbooks that were created in various Museum departments.

Digital Special Collections provides access to our rich online resource of archival photographic images, art and memorabilia images, and Rare Book Collection illustrations.

Audiovisual and Film Collections

The audiovisual and film collections document the Museum’s involvement in scientific exploration, discovery, and public education. Film making equipment was first taken into the field by American Museum of Natural History ornithologist Frank Chapman in 1908 and by explorer and taxidermist Carl Akeley in 1909. Akeley later invented the revolutionary panning motion picture camera and tripod that bear his name. A significant portion of the film collection was created during the 1920's and 30's when the Museum sponsored hundreds of expeditions across the globe. Expedition members were required to bring back film footage and Museum trustees and affiliates were invited to contribute films from their personal travels. In the early 1950's, the Museum collaborated with CBS Television to make the Adventure Series. This live-broadcast television series aired for three years and covered scientific topics of the day. 

Science Bulletins are documentary feature stories produced by the Museum on the latest developments in the fields of astrophysics, Earth science, biodiversity and human biology and evolution. More recent additions to the Collection include copies of many of the productions shown at the Museum’s annual Margaret Mead Film & Video Festival. The collection also includes video recordings of lectures held at the Museum, copies of televised interviews with Museum scientists, and other miscellaneous Museum-related recordings.

There are a total of 291 titles in the Cataloged Film Collection representing all the films that have been identified, cataloged, and transferred to videotape. 

Art and Memorabilia

The majority of the Museum’s fine art collection is administered by the Library. Many items from the collection are on exhibit in the permanent halls but hundreds are in Library storage or out on loan.

The Memorabilia collection preserves many objects that help tell the story of the Museum’s history, including ephemeral components of exhibition, scientific and documentary equipment, and personal artifacts from individuals associated with the Museum.

To view digitized items from the Art and Memorabilia, please visit Digital Special Collections.

Vertical Files

The Vertical Files are composed of clippings, press releases, correspondence and other assorted ephemera on Museum departments, staff, expeditions, exhibitions, and special events.