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Stunning Photos of Dead Creatures from the California Academy of Sciences’ Hidden Library

Tucked behind the walls of one of the city’s most popular museums are millions and millions of dead things. A photographer trains his lens on a fraction of these beautiful corpses.


Pimelodus blochii (Bloch’s catfish)

(1 of 22)

Catherpes mexicanus conspersus (canyon wren)

(2 of 22)

Balearica regulorum (gray crowned crane)

(3 of 22)

Amelanchier alnifolia (western serviceberry)

(4 of 22)

Pteris fauriei hieron (brake fern)

(5 of 22)


(6 of 22)

Cercocarpus ledifolius (mountain mahogany)

(7 of 22)

Acaena magellanica (buzzy burr or greater burnet)

(8 of 22)

Opuntia megasperma (Galápagos prickly pear)

(9 of 22)

An old herbarium, a book for storing and categorizing dried plants.

(10 of 22)

Pinus radiata (Monterey pine)

(11 of 22)

Pteris grandifolia (elephantleaf brake)

(12 of 22)

Eurypegasus draconis (short dragonfish)

(13 of 22)

A selection of beetles.

(14 of 22)

Morpho menelaus (blue morpho butterfly)

(15 of 22)

Atrophaneura dixoni

(16 of 22)

Mormolyce phyllodes (violin beetle)

(17 of 22)

Phyllium giganteum (giant leaf insect)

(18 of 22)

Phyllium giganteum (giant leaf insect)

(19 of 22)

Hoplia coerulea

(20 of 22)

Attacus atlas (Atlas moth)

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Undetermined Phasmatodea (walking stick)

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Editor’s Note: This is one of many stories about our relationship with the natural world, which San Francisco is publishing over the next month as part of the May 2018 Great Outdoors Issue. To read stories as they become available online, click here.

Photographer Alex Farnum
had to make sure he didn’t get any arsenic on his camera equipment. The 120-year-old passenger pigeons were practically nesting in the stuff. He also had to be mindful of the radioactive minerals and highly flammable sharks, which were bobbing in vats of explosive ethyl alcohol. Farnum, a commercial photographer by trade, has spent the last two years on an exotic personal project: photographing just a fraction of the massive specimen collection housed within the California Academy of Sciences.

While visitors to the wildly popular museum have plenty to gawk at, from Atlas beetles to beaded lizards and an albino American alligator, not many are aware that most of the museum’s biological holdings—46 million of them, to be exact—are hidden away from public view, stored in a byzantine and mind-bogglingly large biological library.

Farnum was just as awed by the collection’s storage system as he was by the specimens themselves. “Each department is a different feast for the eyes,” he says. “There are these big underground temperature-controlled rooms—huge halls with tons and tons of doors and shelves, and on each shelf there can be hundreds of specimens.... Entomology has what feels like at least 20 aisles containing 20 doors, each of which opens to 50 shelves—and that will just be the ant species.” These Russian-nesting-doll-style storage facilities are all around: The interior concrete wall bisecting the entire length of the academy conceals vast spaces containing hundreds of compacting shelves. The two-story basement is also brimming with painstakingly categorized corpses, or what the scientists euphemistically refer to as “archived forms of life.”

Needless to say, deciding which specimens to photograph was an undertaking in and of itself; Farnum had to work closely with (and patiently earn the trust of) the various collection managers. “Sometimes it’s literally a couple of hours opening drawers and saying, ‘What the hell is that?,’” he says.

“Every collection manager sees their collection as their baby—their role in life is to steward and protect that collection,” says Shannon Bennett, the museum’s chief of science and dean of science and research collections. “These treasures—for them, they are treasures—are incredibly valuable and precious and potentially can be harmed.... I think people were just really, really impressed with Alex and his care and thoughtfulness about the collections he photographed.”

Some shoot days were more straightforward than others. One of Farnum’s biggest challenges was photographing the ichthyology department—the fish—whose specimens had to remain in water, or else they would instantly start to dry out and change shape. Farnum ended up constructing a custom tank that he shot using a special backdrop and a strobe light. “My whole goal is to show the public something that is private, yet so beautiful and so expansive,” he says. “It really is a record of our modern time.”


Originally published in the May issue of San Francisco

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