A Brief History of Natural History Museums

by David Serlin

© David Serlin 2011

As we learn in Wonderstruck, the first museums were not what we would recognize as museums. They were not open to the public, and ordinary people could not visit them. They were private collections of special objects owned by very rich people, often kings or princes, who had amassed them from different parts of the world.

The first collections emerged in countries like Italy, Germany, England, and France during the 1500s and 1600s at the same that the first explorers began making voyages around the world. In fact, it became part of the terms of exploration to bring back exotic plants and animals (and sometimes people), precious stones and rare materials, and examples of objects made by peoples from different cultures. In Wonderstruck, Ben might not be a prince, but he definitely collects objects as part of the terms of his exploration!

Kings and princes who liked to demonstrate their wealth and power displayed the objects that they had accumulated by building special chambers – sometimes the size of a bookcase, sometimes the size of a small room – called cabinets of wonder, or cabinets of curiosity. Some typical cabinets of wonder might have a collection of reptile skins or animal skeletons, or dried plants and flowers, or seashells. It might also contain objects like hairbrushes or necklaces carved out of ivory or woven from the husks of coconuts. Sometimes a cabinet of curiosity might contain only one kind of object – only rare tortoise shells, for example – because that was all that the collector liked, so the collection had a very narrow focus. Today, a person who collects stamps or snow globes and displays them at home could be said to be a descendent of those who created the original cabinets of curiosity.

Cabinets of wonder may have seemed like collections of objects gathered at random, but in fact they were based on the practice of using special objects to tell important mythological stories or legends. In many cultures, for example, ritual objects such as animal skins, bones, and even seeds would be placed in a particular order to remind the storyteller of certain events and to provoke a response from the audience.

The use of objects to tell stories began to decline with the rise of new kinds of learning. Starting in ancient Greece and continuing through the Middle Ages, many scholars created what were known as “memory palaces,” which were imaginary architectural settings such as a castle or a cathedral in which each room or hallway held a different branch of knowledge such as geometry, biology, chemistry, physics, botany, history, or law. The goal of creating a memory palace was to make each room as realistic in your mind as possible so a person could remember long pieces of information. Remember, this was a time before books were easily available; books were very rare and very expensive, and the printing press was not invented until 1455! Thus, a student studying geometry might imagine a large library full of tables and chairs and blackboards and chalk that corresponded to particular equations and proofs he would need to complete a geometry examination.

We call a word or object that aids in remembering something a mnemonic device (pronounced neh-mah-nic). For example, if you can remember the name Roy G. Biv, then you can remember all of the colors of the rainbow (Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, Violet). Memory palaces were a very complicated kind of mnemonic device, just like Roy G. Biv. Some scholars believe that cabinets of curiosity were not just strange or interesting collections of objects; instead, they were physical versions of memory palaces. If this is true, then the only mystery that remains is: what is it that kings and princes were trying to remember?

Cabinets of wonder were always intended to amuse, inspire, and even shock their visitors with the strange, beautiful, and bizarre. The more rare, it was believed, the more impressive the collection, so it was not uncommon to have a shelf featuring an enormous ruby sitting next to a carved sculpture of a face made of ebony sitting next to a mermaid’s “tail.” All were considered one-of-a-kind, and all were considered “real.” But unlike the memory palace, which could only be experienced internally by one person, the cabinets of curiosity existed in the external world, even though only a special guest or visiting diplomat would be invited to see the secret cabinets of curiosity.

By the 1700s, there were so many private cabinets of curiosity across Europe that many began to believe that it was important to share these collections and promote greater education and understanding. In Great Britain, for example, the wealthy collector Elias Ashmole gave his cabinets of curiosity to the University of Oxford, which used them as the basis for establishing the Ashmolean Museum in 1677, the first university museum in the world. This period was also the time known as the Enlightenment, a period when ideas about democracy and citizenship were being discussed at the same time that science and rational thought were believed to be the tools that would encourage ordinary people to participate in the world around them.

By the early 1800s, in France, Germany, Great Britain, and the newly independent United States of America, scientists, artists, educators, and intellectuals began to think about a new kind of institution – the museum – that would bring together the ideals of education and inspiration to the public. In Great Britain, the British Museum in London (formed 1759) was the first public museum of its kind. It challenged the idea that objects should be seen only by the rich and powerful or only by those who attended university. Indeed, the ideal behind museums like the British Museum was also manifest two other institutions that became popular during the 1800s: the gymnasium and the auditorium, two public places where people could uplift and educate their minds and bodies (such as by doing exercises, or listening to a concert) for a small admission.

The idea behind the word museum is linked to two other familiar words: amusement and muse. While the first word is fairly common, the second word might be less so. Muses were the ancient Greek mythological beings that inspired humans to create works of beauty: there were Muses for poetry, for example, as well as Muses for art, music, sculpture, dance, architecture, and so forth. If you bring these two ideas together under one roof—a place to amuse, and a place to inspire—in the era when people were meant to be “Enlightened” through science, then you have a good idea of what natural history museums were intended to do. It is important to remember that the idea of “amusement” sometimes included what we now think of as “education.” Many people believed that museums were meant to make us smarter as much as they were meant to keep us entertained.

In 1784, for example, Charles Willson Peale opened the Philadelphia Museum, the first public museum in the United States, which combined his collections of natural history objects such as stuffed animals, rare plant specimens, and fossils as well as patriotic objects related to the War of Independence, which had taken place less than a decade earlier. By the 1830s, however, the popularity of Peale’s museum had faded, and many of his collections were purchased by P.T. Barnum, who transported them to his American Museum in lower Manhattan in New York. Barnum, a circus promoter and businessman, believed that it was less important for his customers to be educated than for them to be entertained, so he took enormous liberties with the idea of what the natural history museum was supposed to be.

For several decades, the American Museum was one of the most infamous museums in the world because of the way that it combined authentic natural history objects, such as fossils from the Philadelphia Museum, with “natural” objects of questionable merit. For example, Barnum put on display an African-American woman named Joice Heth who, he claimed, had been George Washington’s nursemaid and was over 160 years old. [She wasn’t.] He also exhibited what he called his “Feejee mermaid,” which he claimed was a once-living (now stuffed) example of an actual mermaid from the Pacific Islands. [It wasn’t.] The American Museum had a rotating schedule of exhibitions, which drew tens of thousands of visitors annually.

During the same period when the American Museum was achieving its greatest popularity, a group of scientists and businessmen organized the American Museum of Natural History (formed 1869) in the newly built Central Park in the middle of Manhattan. Rather than merely seek strange objects or sideshow entertainments to amuse or inspire the imagination (or to make a lot of money), the American Museum of Natural History hired some of the best scientists, professors, librarians, and educators in the world to help create massive collections and make them accessible to the public. By the early decades of the twentieth century, during the time when Wonderstruck takes place and Rose first visits Walter, the American Museum of Natural History had become a major force in presenting natural history to the public, including some of the most famous museum displays and dioramas of people, animals, and climates from across time and cultures.

The American Museum of Natural History was also a pioneer in museology, which is a field somewhere between art and science that uses exhibition and curation to present the richness of the natural world. In the 1920s, for instance, it was among the first natural history museums to put an enlarged model of a mosquito, many hundreds of times its original size, in a glass case under dramatic lighting in order to show the details of its body and its wings. This was just one way that natural history museums have been using what is unreal to heighten what is real. As Rose and Ben and Jamie all discover in Wonderstruck, natural history museums inspire visitors’ imaginations, and encourage them to see the world as one enormous cabinet of wonder.

David Serlin is a writer, historian, and a professor of communication at the University of California, San Diego, where he teaches courses on the history of museums and the culture of the 1970s. He has published many books and articles, and is currently completing a book about how people with disabilities experience city life entitled Window Shopping with Helen Keller.