Collecting Natural History

Growing up in New York City, one of my favorite places to visit on cold and rainy days when you could not play in the Park was the American Museum of Natural History. From the dinosaurs to the dioramas of wildlife from around the world staged in their natural environment, I could (and did) sit there for hours mesmerized by the dinosaurs, stuffed mammals, and insect collections on display.
The founding of the Museum realized the dream of naturalist Dr. Albert S. Bickmore. Bickmore, a one-time student of zoologist Louis Agassiz, who lobbied tirelessly for years for the establishment of a natural history museum in New York. His proposal, backed by such powerful sponsors as Theodore Roosevelt Sr. (father to our 26th President), J.P. Morgan, William Blodgett (also a founder of the Metropolitan Museum of Art) and a number of other high-profile industrialists of their day, won the support of the Governor of New York, John Thompson Hoffman, who signed a bill officially creating the American Museum of Natural History on April 6, 1869.  The original Museum building opened its doors to the public in 1887 but public interest in its growing collections quickly prompted the need for its expansion, the first round of which was completed by the end of the 19th century.
Like other natural history museums cropping up in big cities across the country, public interest, museum expansion, and funding hinged on what the American Museum of Natural History could bring back to the City of New York and put on display.
One of the most popular ways at the time for natural history museums to build their reputations and collections was to fund an expedition to someplace new and remote. Expeditions of the 19th and early 20th century often brought together self-taught naturalists, taxidermists, scientists, adventurists, nature photographers, and hobbyist collectors, who traveled the world to parts unknown to bring back to museums everything from small and large mammals to flora and fauna, birds, insects, and marine life. One of the most famous of these Naturalist collectors was Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. His safari to East Africa and expedition down the Amazon brought back to American natural history museums thousands of samples of specimens and species not seen outside of their natural habitat. You can learn more about Roosevelt, the Naturalist, on page 31.
Many of the Naturalists of Roosevelt’s generation were inspired by the works of such pioneers in the fields of the natural sciences as John James Audobon (1785-1851), Charles Darwin (1809-1882), Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913), Henry David Thoreau (1817-1892), William Stimpson (1832-1872), Spencer Fullerton Baird (1823-1887), and Louis Agassiz (1807-1873).  These men, as well as countless other avid, nature collectors and observationalists of everything from insects and butterflies to birds and mammals,  inspired a generation of Naturalists who can be credited with the popularity and scientific study of living things as a natural science.
One of the earliest natural history museums in America was put together by Charles Wilson Peale. Peale had served with George Washington at Trenton, New Jersey. After the revolution he opened a gallery where he displayed and sold portraits of famous revolutionaries. He began to add natural history artifacts to his displays and soon decided to devote his attention to creating a natural history museum. There were few books or resources available on taxidermy during the time so Peale mostly taught himself how to skin and stuff animals for display. Because Peale was foremost an artist, he began making elaborate displays for the taxidermy he created. The collection grew and soon was moved to Independence Hall, where the Declaration of Independence was signed. Later his brand of museum opened in Baltimore and New York. Unfortunately, Peale struggled financially and he had to sell his collections, including a lot to P.T. Barnum, who went on to add these items to his “oddities” museum.
In 1846, President James K. Polk signed into law the act organizing the Smithsonian Institution as “an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge” and American identity. The United States National Museum was founded in 1846 as part of the Smithsonian Institution. The museum, initially housed in the Smithsonian Institution Building (better known today as the Smithsonian Castle), opened its first formal exhibit hall in 1858.
The Natural History Building (as the National Museum of Natural History was originally known) of the Smithsonian opened its doors to the public on March 17, 1910, in order to provide the Smithsonian Institution with more space for collections and research. The Smithsonian’s natural history collections have their origins in the 1838–1842 United States Exploring Expedition, which circumnavigated the globe amassing cultural and natural history collections.  To outfit its new dedicated museum to natural history display and scientific study, the Smithsonian went on its own aggressive acquisition spree, outfitting, sponsoring or finding funding for numerous expeditions that brought back from the field unique physical specimens that could be catalogued, studied, preserved and displayed in the country’s national interest.
The Smithsonian’s embrace of natural history lent scientific legitimacy to what had once been the work of self-taught observationalists, naturalists, and hobbyists.  While not trained scientists, these 19th and early 20th century nature collectors, many of whom did their own field work and mastered the art of preserving their specimens for study, are credited with introducing generations to the discoveries of the natural world through their collections.