Why National Parks Are Actually Secret Museums

A photographer documents the hidden wildlife and historical collections at America's famous natural monuments.

Nestled beside the well-traveled grounds of the Grand Canyon is a storage and research facility with more than 900,000 artifacts that hardly anyone has ever seen. The little-known Grand Canyon museum holds drawers upon drawers of bird skins, preserved nests, and delicately pressed flowers from the 18th century. Photographer Leah Sobsey immersed herself in these archives for the making of her new book, Collections: Birds, Bones, and Butterflies. Her mission: Bring these treasures out of exile and obscurity. 

Sobsey first studied bird skins in 2008 at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, which is heavily featured in the book. Her work led to a residency at the Grand Canyon, where she stumbled upon the trove of natural artifacts owned by the U.S. government. That's when she realized there are similar secret stockpiles all across the country. “The specimens are all stored in these small metal buildings off to the side of national parks, tucked away and hidden in dark drawers in basements,” Sobsey says.

Most visitors, of course, come to the Grand Canyon to revel in its vastness. The collection rarely sees any traffic, despite being open to the public (a visit requires a specific research purpose, plus an appointment).​

The National Park Service Museum network, which consists of 113 collections, contains an impressive record of life that's existed in America’s natural spaces. Since 1904, the museums have archived over 115 million objects that document the history of humans, animals, plants, and rocks, from preserved husks to leather boots shod by pioneers. They hold particular importance for conservation, reflecting changes in the parks’ ecosystems over time. The Yosemite museum, for instance, has 50 specimens of the foothill yellow-legged frog, which has since gone extinct in the region.

For her project, Sobsey snapped high-resolution images of the government’s specimens, handling fragile Scarlet Tanagers and Indigo Buntings that lived a hundred years ago or more. She notes that the dead birds smell like nursing homes and arsenic. “It almost felt like I wasn’t supposed to be there, like some of these birds hadn’t been touched in years, or even looked at,” Sobsey says. “I wanted to bring them to light again.”

Collections: Birds, Bones, and Butterflies, by Leah Sobsey, Daylight Books, 128 pages, $27.49. Buy it at Barnes & Noble.