The 1850s

The 1860s

The 1870s

The 1880s

Early 20th Century

The 1920s

The 1930s

Post World War II

The 1960s

The 1970s

The 1980s

All text from:
The Park and the People

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The American Museum of Natural History   |   The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The American Museum of Natural History
In 1860 Albert Bickmore, who was to become the founder of the natural history museum, went to Cambridge to study under pioneer naturalist Louis Agassiz, who had recently organized the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard. The ambitious young scientist soon began to dream of establishing his own natural history museum in the "city of our greatest wealth." In 1867 war-enriched New Yorkers greeted Bickmore's plan with enthusiasm. A committee of nineteen -- among them a glass importer, Theodore Roosevelt (the future president's father); a corporate lawyer, Joseph H. Choate; a financier, J. Pierpont Morgan; a department store magnate, A. T. Stewart; and at least six bankers -- signed on. Some, like Roosevelt, were amateur naturalists, but most acted out of local "patriotism," convinced, in the words of John D. Wolfe, a retired merchant and first president of the museum, that such a museum "would be a good thing for the city to have." Bickmore shrewdly played to this sentiment when he persuaded the organizing committee to adopt the name American Museum of Natural History to signify that the new institution would have the same stature in the United States as the British Museum had in England. [Ch1330]

The trustees rejected Agassiz's idea that the museum should primarily serve scientists and specialists. They instead endorsed Green's vision of the museum as an adjunct and "aid to the great educational system of the city." An 1869 Times editorial, noting the lack of "sufficient supply" of "skilled young men in all mechanical arts," urged a science museum to "train our young men for these new professions" and to provide for "the culture and good habits of the masses." [Ch1332]

By 1868, having successfully secured a maintenance budget for the park, Andrew Green confidently lobbied for a law authorizing the city to subsidize museums within Central Park by erecting buildings and paying maintenance bills. The park board would oversee the general arrangements, but management would remain entirely in the private hands of "intelligent citizens[,] men of leisure & scientific men." Green, of course, saw no conflict of interest in his own service on the boards of both the public park and the public-private American Museum of Natural History. [Ch1338]

Bickmore now raised funds from wealthy citizens to buy a collection. The museum had started to amass a mix of artifacts (mounted birds and reptiles in alcohol, for example), which the park board agreed to display in the Arsenal. [Ch1340] Although its new building in Manhattan Square (officially part of Central Park) would not be ready until 1877, the natural history museum attracted sizable crowds to its temporary quarters. By 1876 more than a million people visited the Arsenal museum each year, close to 10 percent of all park visitors. [Ch1342]

The new museum building -- a red-brick Victorian Gothic structure designed by Calvert Vaux and Jacob Wrey Mould -- opened on Manhattan Square on December 22, 1877. "The next day after our grandly successful opening," Bickmore later wrote, "we experienced the depressing effect of our spacious exhibition halls nearly deserted." With the elevated railway still only reaching to 59th Street and Ninth Avenue, the new museum was "too far from the settled part of the city" to attract "the casual visitor," according to the superintendent. Especially damaging was the loss of the spillover crowds from the more popular park menagerie around the Arsenal. In the 1880s Bickmore aggressively linked the museum to the public school system, developing teachers and schoolchildren as an important constituency. Retired railroad executive and merchant banker Morris K. Jesup, who became president in 1881, pushed the curators to develop more popular and accessible exhibits. [Ch1344]

Even so, the popularization of the museum proceeded slowly. In the mid-1880s, for example, curators took the birds off their mahogany stands and mounted them in groups amid reproductions of their nests. But not until 1900 did the curator in charge of displaying shells add common names to the Latin ones on the labels. As late as 1886 attendance was less than one-sixth what it had been at the Arsenal. [Ch1345]


The "Spoils of the Park"   |   Rides and Restaurants   |   The Central Park Zoo
The American Museum of Natural History   |   The Metropolitan Museum of Art