The 7 Creepiest Things in the Carnegie Museum of Natural History
Our Halloween trilogy concludes with another attempt to find terror in unexpected places.
Last year, I took a trip to the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium in search of its most terrifying creatures (ostriches are sneakily disturbing). That post inspired the Halloween triad I’ve been working on the past few weeks; there are just too many great ways to get scared in and around Pittsburgh. And it’s my blog, so my favorite holiday gets extra attention. That’s how blogs work.
Anyway, in honor of that post, I decided to embark on another journey to discover the unsettling aspects of an otherwise non-spooky Pittsburgh landmark. I hadn’t spent a great deal of time in the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in a while, but I certainly remembered lots of unusual stuff from my childhood trips. After all, when you’re a kid, any place that has mummies and dinosaurs and mysterious glowing rocks is pretty much the scariest/awesomest place in the world.
I should note that I pulled these terrors only from the permanent collection. Not only is the current featured exhibit “Roads of Arabia” fascinating and beautiful, but it does have its own creepy elements, including millennia-old gravestones. Since it’s a touring exhibit, though, I disqualified it from this particular list.
Here, then, are the seven most unnerving things that live in the Oakland institution year-round. Hold on to your butts.
Photo by Via Tsuji
Dinosaur Division: Allosaurus Skeleton
It’s tough to narrow the museum’s impressive and historically rich collection of fossils down to a single terrifying example; after all, we’re looking at the million-year-old skeletons of giant killing machines. But Allosaurus gets the nod, thanks to pop culture.
After Jurassic Park hit, we spent the next few years being reminded that the velociraptors depicted in the film weren’t historically accurate; the real raptors were small, feathered scavengers. But when you round a corner in the Museum of Natural History and encounter Allosaurus, your mind will immediately think “raptor.”
He looks about the same as the movie’s assassin-dinos, albeit without the crazy claws. But where it gets unnerving: Allosaurus was way bigger than Spielberg’s raptors — 9 feet at the hip, almost 30 feet long — and just as deadly. So, no, the raptors from the movie weren’t real. But Allosaurus was. And he was way scarier.
Ice Age Division: Depiction of a Brawl Between a Sabertooth Cat and a Dire Wolf
The snarling faces of the long-extinct, most horrifying of felines and a nasty-looking customer called the dire wolf would be intimidating enough as-is. But it’s one of a number of ice age skeletons that the museum has crafted half of a replica body around; that is, from one side, it’s a statue and, the other side, a skeleton.
It’s like something out of The Cell. One pictures pre-historic, half-zombified animals brawling through the Hall of Architecture at night.
And you thought dire wolves only exist in Westeros.
Insect Division — Wall of Specimens
Near the ice age animals, there’s a giant wall of preserved bugs, and I am so afraid of bugs that I literally can’t even bear typing this sentence. Moving on.
Plant Division — Destroying Angel Mushroom
I didn’t plan to find anything horrific in the mostly tranquil botany exhibit, but a large display of native mushrooms brought me face-to-face with the Destroying Angel, the deadliest fungus known to man. Ingest it, and basically everything in your body starts killing you, quickly; your heart, blood, kidneys and liver are knocked out all at once.
The few victims who survive need new livers in a hurry. A good reminder to never eat any mushroom that isn’t from Giant Eagle, especially because the Destroying Angel can pop up just about anywhere.
What the Hell Were They Thinking? Division — Fictional Birds vs. Real (Dead) Counterparts
Let me say this first: The Carnegie Museum of Natural History is one of those Pittsburgh places that every child should visit on a regular basis. We’ve got a boatload of these institutions around, and if I had children, I’d take them all the time. There is so much for kids to do and see and learn here.
That being said: On the third floor, there’s a fairly remote hall that contains specimens of birds from around the world, beautifully preserved via taxidermy. Now, most of them are presented in lifelike poses, but some — for reasons I assume have to do with preserving these delicate artifacts — lie flat and prone, clearly dead.
Fine. But I would not have put any such ex-parrots in the case depicting famous fictional birds and their real-life counterparts. Because in that case, you can find The Lion King’s Zazu next to a lifeless red-billed hornbill, Tweety Bird next to a canary on its back ("Tweety, wake up!") and Toucan Sam next to a very dead toucan. It’s like a bad Far Side cartoon come to life. Distract your children when passing, lest their dreams turn into Bergmanesque nightmares about the finite nature of existence.
Egyptian Division — Mummy of a Child
Seriously, that’s the name of the item. There is a very small, very ancient deceased Egyptian tot preserved in a pint-sized sarcophagus in the Egyptian exhibit. It’s beautiful, but it’s chilling.
Best in Show — “Arab Courier Attacked by Lions”
An elaborate diorama constructed in 1867 by Jules Verreaux, a taxidermist and naturalist, “Arab Courier Attacked by Lions” was originally displayed at the Exposition Universelle in Paris, where it won a gold medal; the Carnegie bought it in 1898.
A pair of Barbary Lions attacks a messenger on camelback in North Africa in the display; the lions and camel are real taxidermied animals, now preserved for almost 150 years.
It’s a harrowing sight. One lion is sinking its claws into the screaming camel’s side while the courier tries desperately to fend off its attack, having already felled one cat that lies at the camel’s feet. They don’t make stuff like this anymore. Fortunately, because Andrew Carnegie was such an awesome dude, we’ve had it here for more than 100 years.
“Arab Courier Attacked by Lions” is an example of the innumerable contributions the Carnegie museums have made to art, science and knowledge. It’s also mind-bendingly horrifying. Prepare for nightmares.