Walking into the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, visitors are met with towering replicas of historical sites, dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures, and posed taxidermy. But behind all the bones and dramatic dioramas is the Alcohol House. Hidden for over a century deep in the museum, the massive collection of preserved reptiles and amphibians is finally making its public debut after years of preparation to transform it into yet another fascinating exhibit.
Visiting the Alcohol House back in 2016, not long after the museum obtained a $499,224 National Science Foundation grant to update it, was like stepping into the past. Initially built in 1907, its open, two-story structure features shelves stocked to the brim with lizards, snakes, and other animals suspended in jars of alcohol preservative. Some of them date back to the late-1870s; it was difficult not to feel a bit of adventurous romanticism. It was like something out of an Indiana Jones movie if Indiana Jones traversed the world in search of rare frogs.
On March 13, the museum will invite visitors to take the first public tour of the exhibit during one of its After Dark events. (It’s currently only available to After Dark VIP Season Pass holders.)
According to Stevie Kennedy-Gold, the CMNH collection manager for amphibians and reptiles, not much has changed in terms of how the place looks.
“It’s effectively all the same, it’s just that things are better off than they were before,” says Kennedy-Gold, who started working with the Alcohol House last May.
A few noticeable differences include the entry hallway, which used to house metal tanks containing the museum’s collection of North American freshwater turtles, the largest in the world. Because the museum expanded the number of tanks and moved them, that hallway has been converted into what Kennedy-Gold calls a “little exhibit space” where guides will start tours with a brief history of herpetology and how herpetologists have collected specimens over the years. This means visitors will see some tools of the trade, like antique microscopes and anti-venom kits, as well as a sneak peek of the 250,000 Alcohol House specimens from all over the world, including jarred and mounted taxidermy specimens, bones, and molds and casts.
Less noticeable is the shift to safer, more sustainable jars that Kennedy-Gold says will hopefully keep specimens “preserved and retained for as long as possible.” The old jars have found a second life in the gift shop, where employees have converted them into terrariums and other keepsakes available for visitors to purchase.
“It’s a little piece of history,” says Kennedy-Gold.
With tours being available to the public, Kennedy-Gold believes the Alcohol House will play a variety of roles, including how people view natural history museums.
“People see the bones out on display that they don’t necessarily realize that there’s this rich history behind the scenes, that museums are more than just tourist attractions,” she says. “They are super significant to scientists and house huge research collections that we want them to use and to get them excited about the natural world, about natural history, and science itself.”
This speaks to another component of the new and improved Alcohol House, that of a comprehensive, updated online database and more accurate labels on all the specimens.
“One thing that is notorious in all museums — and it’s just the way it is — is that science is ever progressing, which is fantastic, but because you have so many different people focusing on all of these different organisms and species, and you only have generally one, maybe two collection managers per section, we can’t necessarily keep on top of all the changes that are occurring in science,” says Kennedy-Gold.
Aside from being a curiosity, the hope is that the Alcohol House will serve as a teaching tool. Kennedy-Gold says that she and Dr. Jennifer Sheridan, the museum’s curator of herpetology, plan on imparting some of their knowledge when they oversee some of the tours. The museum has already welcomed work-study students from local universities, including the University of Pittsburgh, Duquesne University, and Chatham University, as well as from City Charter High School.
Kennedy-Gold hopes that, by introducing visitors to the vast and diverse world of reptiles and amphibians, the Alcohol House will generate interest in herpetology and de-stigmatize some of the more demonized species, like snakes.
But most of all, she wants visitors to experience the awe that even she, as a museum employee, still feels.
“Sometimes we’ll just walk around and see a new specimen jar that we haven’t seen before,” she says. “But it’s that excitement and that wonder because each of these little specimens is just a wonderland of information and history and fun.”