Spending Time Among the Racks at the American Museum of Natural History

Inside the American Museum of Natural History.

The American Museum of Natural History’s collections are a window to the natural world. Shelf Life, an original series with 360 episodes, traces the discoveries of some of these collections’ specimens and artifacts in far-away places. The challenge: taking viewers along on historic scientific expeditions, from early 1900s to the 1960s. We spoke with Erin Chapman, New Media Content Manager at the American Museum of Natural History about her long love of museums, the millions of specimens in the Museum’s collections, and science story-telling in 360.

How do you approach science storytelling?

Erin Chapman (New Media Content Manager, American Museum of Natural History): Like a lot of people that work here, I’ve been in love with natural history museums from a really young age. Now that I work at the American Museum of Natural History, getting to go into the collections and talk with the scientists is my childhood dream come true. I’m always asking questions about their research and the collections, and certain subjects consistently rise to the top. Those themes end up being the big picture ideas that we build the series around. We tell stories from all scientific divisions in the Museum, using a particular narrative as a lens for exploring a collections theme. For example, in “Nabokov’s Butterflies,” we used the famous author’s butterfly collection to examine the concept of georeferencing. (Georeferencing means associating an individual specimen with a specific set of location coordinates, and it can help scientists explore all kinds of questions from migration patterns to climate change.) It’s also a priority for us to explore the narrative creatively. Scientists are some of the most creative folks I know, and there’s no reason science filmmaking should be told without imagination and humor.


The average museum goer wouldn’t be able to gain this kind of access to the specimens and artifacts that are on display, and the insider’s perspective of behind-the-scenes is interesting to watch. Are there any things that surprised you when working on this series?

Erin Chapman: We’ve been pleasantly surprised to hear that Shelf Life has actually inspired some scientific inquiry and collaboration. It’s exciting to have the general public watch our series, but there’s an extra thrill knowing that researchers also have an eye on the videos. In one instance, several entomologists had not been aware of the scientific importance of Vladimir Nabokov’s collection until seeing our “Nabokov’s Butterflies” episode.

In general, it’s also been eye-opening for me to learn just how much information a single specimen can contain. As I’ve seen over and over again throughout production, new technologies are constantly opening up new avenues of investigation. In many cases, when these specimens were collected, the researchers had no idea about the kinds of questions their modern counterparts would be able to ask. Things like CT scanning and new types of DNA and protein analysis mean that even a single tooth can hold a wealth of information about the past.

Shelf Life’s “Shamans of Siberia” allows viewers to meet the shamans of snowy Siberia with the Jesup North Pacific Expedition — one of the largest anthropology expeditions of all time.

Describe some of the challenges faced while making these videos.

Erin Chapman: For our Shelf Life episodes, we can’t simply film specimens in a cabinet. Each episode forces us to come up with a new way to tell the story of a museum collection. For some projects, this involves spending hours in the Museum’s archives. For “Shamans of Siberia,” we had to decipher 19th-century handwriting scribbled in the Siberian tundra, and for “Fossil Hunting in the Gobi” we scanned thousands of expedition photographs to find just the perfect shot. For others, we’ve had to creatively visualize unseen phenomena or try and recreate the past — all while maintaining scientific rigor.

How does Shelf Life support the idea of the importance of Natural History museums and their collections in a modern society?

Erin Chapman: Over the course of filming, our Ichthyology Curator Melanie Stiassny told me, “Look, even if I had all the money in the world, even if I could travel to every corner of the globe, I could never reproduce what we’ve got here [in the collections] because the world has changed.” That’s a powerful statement. The collections at the American Museum of Natural History (and other museums around the world) are simply irreplaceable. They’re a time capsule of life, teaching us about its history and our future. One of the most important missions at the Museum is active scientific research, and one of its greatest scientific resources is our world-class scientific collection of more than 34 million specimens and artifacts. With Shelf Life, we want to upend the perception of museums as simply storehouses. Instead, we want our audience to understand that natural history collections are dynamic places of discovery where new species are revealed, surprising relationships come to light, and researchers learn new questions to ask.

See the entire Shelf Life series, now on Jaunt.