Although she's been dead for 3,000 years, the mummy at the Vanderbilt Museum still has secrets she hasn't revealed. She lived near the Nile, a river flanked by papyrus reeds and filled with grazing hippos, under the rule of the pharaohs. She died young and, it's believed, quite suddenly, by undetermined causes. Even her name, which should be found in a cartouche on her coffin, was left blank. The short stature of the woman whose mummified remains are in a coffin in Centerport belies a long shadow of history and mystery. In 1931, William K. Vanderbilt found the treasure in an antiques shop in Cairo and brought it home. Now, it's lying in a colorfully painted sarcophagus decorated with hieroglyphs, encased in glass, in a small side room at Suffolk County's Vanderbilt Museum.
The rare and unknown are the threads that bind the vast collection amassed by Vanderbilt. His railroad baron father was the richest man in America, and, like many wealthy young men of his day, he lived a life of adventure. He raced horses and yachts, golfed and gambled (sometimes simultaneously), built mansions and sailed the seas. His roving mind and boundless taste for exploration and oddities are the reason for Long Island's only natural history museum.
Vanderbilt, explains Stephanie Gress, the museum's director of curatorial affairs, had the vast fortune and skills that allowed him to indulge his passion. "He had his own ship and circumnavigated the globe," she says. "The country was in a deep Depression and Vanderbilt knew that children, especially, wanted to learn, wanted to travel, but couldn't afford to. So, his aim was to bring the world back for everyone."
WHAT YOU'LL SEE
While other museums house rocks and bones, Vanderbilt sought exotic cultures and creatures, focusing on the panoply of forms of life on Earth. The museum features, along with the mummy, rows and rows of weird and wild specimens, both in the mansion and in the nearby Hall of Fishes. You don't have to be a scientist — and perhaps it's better if you're not — to be left breathless by some of the interesting, strange and unbelievable things on view.
Inside glass cases recalling old-fashioned cabinets of curiosities, you'll see a gruesome spiked mace designed to penetrate anything or anyone it hit, taxidermied birds of prey and two withered and frightful shrunken heads from Peru about the size of softballs, with stitched-up eyes and mouths, leathery skin and flowing, long hair. There are jellyfish and octopi in jars and fish with knifelike teeth. Mammoth moths are pinned to boards next to gigantic beetles from Brazil and a fuzzy Texas brown tarantula the size of a hand. "That's something you might miss," Gress warns. "There are beautiful butterflies and then all of a sudden you get to the last case, and there's this hideous tarantula."
The array of creepy, crawly, slimy, snarling or scurrying creatures is enough to either delight imaginations or disturb sleep patterns. To lighten the atmosphere at Halloween, costumed mannequins echoing flapper-era parties, often pop up.
Frank and Carmelina Giacalone from Oceanside were recently visiting for the first time with their grandchildren, Patrick and Addy. "Where's the mummy?" they ask, as Patrick adds, "I'm going to be a skeleton."
The kids started out scared, but ended up loving it — just as Vanderbilt had in mind. Says Gress, "He was trying to convey that foreign cultures were not necessarily creepy or weird, that they were to be understood and embraced. That's why he brought things back, so that he could foster an understanding of other cultures among people."
Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum
WHEN | WHERE Noon-5 p.m. Fridays-Sundays and Tuesdays, 180 Little Neck Road, Centerport
INFO 631-854-5579, vanderbiltmuseum.org
ADMISSION $8 ($5 ages 3-12)