34 Million Treasures: A Brief History of the American Museum of Natural History
Selected AMNH History Resources
Other Books of Interest
- During the 1850’s, a number of wealthy New Yorkers wanted to bring the City “up to speed.” Most major European cities (and few if any American cities) boasted things like a major Art Museum, a Natural History Museum, and a Zoological institution. New York was quickly becoming the financial center of the nation and it was time to create cultural institutions that would put New York further on the map.
- 1869: Albert Smith Bickmore, one-time student of Harvard zoologist Louis Agassiz, is successful in his proposal to create a natural history museum in New York City, winning the support of William E. Dodge, Jr., Theodore Roosevelt, Sr., Joseph Choate, and J. Pierpont Morgan
- The Governor of New York, John Thompson Hoffman, signs the Act of Incorporation officially creating the American Museum of Natural History on April 6, 1869.
- Boss Tweed (legislation to approve Art Museum Natural History) 1871. John David Wolfe becomes President of the Museum the same year.
- Andrew Green (Commissioner of Central Park) is a major force behind creating the needed resources for cultural institutions in New York. In addition to his help with the founding of the AMNH, over time, he also became the “father” of the New York Public Library and the Bronx Zoo. He was also instrumental in the unification of the 5 boroughs.
- 1871: A series of exhibits of the Museum's collection goes on view for the first time in the Central Park Arsenal, the Museum's original home on the eastern side of Central Park.
- 1872: Robert L. Stuart becomes President of the Museum. The Museum quickly outgrows the Arsenal and secures Manhattan Square, a block of land across the street from Central Park, between West 77th and 81st Streets, to build a bigger facility.
- 1872: At the beginning of the year, the Fine Arts Museum and the Natural History Museum were to share Manhattan Square. But by March, the Art and History Museums are confirmed in their current, separate spaces.
- 1872: Calvert Vaux and Jacob Mould create a Masterplan that would fill the entirety of Manhattan Square.
- 1874: The groundbreaking for the first building occurs, with President Ulysses Grant presiding.
- 1877: The first building opens.
- 1874: The cornerstone for the Museum's first building at 77th Street is laid by U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant.
- 1877: The first building opens with U.S. President Rutherford B. Hayes presiding at the public ceremony.
Spotlight Web Resources
- 1881: Morris K. Jesup, the new President, launches the Museum into a golden age of exploration that lasts from 1880 to 1930. During this time, the Museum is involved with expeditions that discover the North Pole, explore unmapped areas of Siberia, traverse Outer Mongolia and the great Gobi desert, and travel to the Congo, taking Museum representatives to every continent on the globe.
- 1890--1900: The 77th Street buildings and Auditorium are completed.
- 1892: After years of debate, both the AMNH and the Metropolitan Museum of Art agree to open their doors on Sundays.
- 1894--1898: Robert E. Peary discovers the Cape York Meteorite with the help of indigenous people. The meteorite is popularly known as Ahnighito.
- 1895: President Jesup hires Franz Boas to be the assistant curator in the Department of Ethnology
- 1896: The Hall of Northwest Coast Indians, now called the Northwest Coast Hall, opens on the first floor of the original 1877 building. It remains the oldest, continuously used exhibition in the Museum.
- 1897–1902: Boas organizes the Jesup North Pacific Expedition. In the entire field of anthropology, nothing of comparable ambition or scope has ever before been attempted. The expedition yields an unparalleled record of the life and culture of the peoples of the North Pacific.
- 1897--1942: Barnum Brown leads expeditions to the West where he makes some of the greatest paleontological discoveries, including the first Tyrannosaurus rex skeletons in 1903 and 1908.
- 1899: Within a few years, the next buildings along 77th Street buildings are constructed.
- 1902 The Hall of North American Birds (renovated 1959--1969) is opened. Leonard Cutler Sanford (who was named a trustee in 1921) leads expeditions to South America, the Southern Seas, and Africa between 1912 and 1930. In 1932, Lord Rothschild (who had collected over 230,000 specimens) was forced to sell the vast majority of his bird collection to the Museum after he had been blackmailed by a former mistress
- 1905--1908: The Power House and the Columbus Avenue South Wing are completed.
- 1906: Franz Boas leaves his position at the Museum and begins teaching at Columbia University. One of his students is Margaret Mead, the scientist, explorer, writer, and teacher. She will work in the Department of Anthropology at the Natural from 1926 until her death in 1978. A pioneer, she brings the serious work of anthropology to a broader audience.
Spotlight Web Resources
- 1908: Museum President Morris K. Jesup passes away. Henry Fairfield Osborn becomes President. For whatever faults we may attribute to him today (including his firm belief in eugenics), there can be no doubt that Osborn brings the Museum into its golden age. For over two decades he captains the Museum.
- 1909--1920’s: During this period--after extensive work with the Milwaukee Museum of Natural History and the Field Museum in Chicago-- Carl Akeley, a pioneer of taxidermy and the creation of life-like mammal dioramas, devoted years to the creation of the African Mammals hall, heading several expeditions to the Congo River region, including a 1909 trip with Theodore Roosevelt.
- 1921: The Second International Eugenics Congress is convened at the Museum to advance the pseudo-science of eugenics.
- 1922: Roy Chapman Andrews leads historic Central Asiatic Expeditions through the Gobi desert of Mongolia, discovering some of the richest dinosaur fossil sites in the world. Andrews and his team work there until the border between China and Outer Mongolia closes in 1930.
- 1922--1928 South Wing (CPW), Hall Of Oceanic Life, and Educational Services Building
- 1926: The Museum receives an extensive gift of mammals from the Indian subcontinent, the result of an expedition led by Arthur S. Vernay and Colonel J. C. Faunthorpe. Work soon begins on designing a fitting environment for these specimens, which will be mounted according to Akeley’s technique and displayed in dioramas.
- 1926--1935: During this period, Lincoln Ellsworth, who became a Museum trustee in 1921 made extensive expeditions to the North Pole and Antarctica. He led the first trans-Arctic (1926) and trans-Antarctic (1935) air crossings, and the Ellsworth Mountain Range in Antarctica is named after him. A permanent exhibition about Ellsworth opened in 1933.
- 1930--1936 The Central Park West buildings are completed in the early years of the Depression: The Power and Service Building, the Akeley/African Building, the Whitney Wing, and the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial.
- 1930: The first major hall of mammal habitat dioramas, the South Asiatic Hall, opens, displaying Vernay and Faunthorpe’s specimens.
- 1933: F. Trubee Davison becomes President of the Museum until 1951.
- The Hall of Ocean Life opens on the first floor of the Central Park West building.
- 1935: Legendary dinosaur explorer Roy Chapman Andrews becomes Director of the Museum. The Hayden Planetarium opens thanks to the philanthropy of Charles Hayden.
- 1936: Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Hall and Theodore Roosevelt Rotunda open. The Akeley Hall of African Mammals opens under the direction of James L. Clark, the Museum’s Vice Director. Artists and scientists, led by Carl Akeley, had gone to Africa to sketch, photograph, collect, measure, and make molds of leaves, bark, moss, and other aspects of the terrain to make the dioramas as accurate as possible.
Spotlight Web Resources
- 1942: The Hall of North American Mammals opens on the first floor with 10 dioramas. More are added through 1963. The gallery showcases what many consider to be the finest habitat dioramas in the world, many set in U.S. National Parks. The dioramas are works of art, zoological science, and recorded history. Standout contributors include James Perry Wilson and Francis Lee Jaques (artists), Robert Rockwell (taxidermy), and Raymond deLucia (foreground)
- 1951: Alexander M. White becomes President of the Museum.
- 1958: The Hall of North American Forests opens on the first floor.
- 1960: The Great Canoe is installed near the 77th Street entrance.
- 1961: The Hall of Human Biology opens, which includes the Transparent Woman.
- 1963: The Hall of North American Small Mammals opens on the first floor.
- 1964: The Hall of Primates opens on the third floor.
- 1966: The Hall of Eastern Woodlands Indians opens on the third floor.
- 1967: The Hall of Plains Indians opens on the third floor. The Museum’s exterior is designated an official New York City Landmark.
- 1968: Gardner D. Stout becomes President of the Museum. The Hall of African Peoples opens on the second floor.
- 1969: The Hall of Ocean Life is renovated to include a 94-foot-long model of a blue whale suspended from the ceiling.
- 1970: The Hall of Mexico and Central America opens on the second floor.
- 1971: The Hall of Pacific Peoples opens on the third floor, reopens as Margaret Mead Hall of Pacific Peoples in 1984.
- 1972: The Frederick H. Leonhardt People Center opens on the second floor.
- 1974: The Louis Calder Laboratory and the Alexander M. White Natural Science Center are completed on the second floor.
- 1975: Robert G. Goelet becomes President of the Museum.
- The Theodore Roosevelt Rotunda on the Museum’s second floor is designated a New York City interior landmark.
- 1976: The Morgan Memorial Hall of Gems and the Harry Frank Guggenheim Hall of Minerals open on the first floor.
- 1977: Gallery 3, a special-exhibition space on the third floor, is completed. The Hall of Reptiles and Amphibians opens on the third floor.
- 1980: The Gardner D. Stout Hall of Asian Peoples opens on the second floor.
- 1981: The Arthur Ross Hall of Meteorites opens on the first floor.
- 1983: The Charles A. Dana Education Wing is completed.
- 1988: George D. Langdon, Jr., becomes President of the Museum.
- 1989: The Hall of South American Peoples opens on the second floor. The original South American hall opened in 1907 and closed in the 1960s.
Spotlight Web Resources
- 1991: The Mongolian Academy of Sciences invites the Museum to take part in a joint paleontological expedition to the Gobi desert, the first such expedition to include Western scientists since the Central Asiatic Expedition in the 1920s. The Museum maintains a close working relationship with the government of Mongolia, processing and eventually returning specimens collected there in modern times--and helps to foster and grow a robust paleontological community within Mongolia. At present there is an effort underway to build a paleontological museum at the Flaming Cliffs, near the place where Andrews discovered the first fossil dinosaur eggs.
- 1991: A five-story-high Barosaurus cast is installed in the Theodore Roosevelt Rotunda, becoming the world’s highest freestanding dinosaur display.
- 1992: The Research Library's new facility opens. The Center for Biodiversity and Conservation is established. The Hall of Human Biology and Evolution opens on the first floor.
- 1993: Ellen V. Futter becomes President of the Museum.
- 1996: Major renovations are completed on the fossil halls on the fourth floor of the Museum. Openings during this period include: the Hall of Primitive Mammals, the Paul and Irma Milstein Hall of Advanced Mammals, the Hall of Saurischian Dinosaurs, the Hall of Ornithischian Dinosaurs, the Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Orientation Center, and the Hall of Vertebrate Origins. Several Halls highlight the work of paleoartist Charles Knight.
- 1997: The National Center for Science Literacy, Education and Technology is created, in partnership with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).
- 1998: The Hall of Biodiversity opens on the first floor.
- 1999: The David S. and Ruth L. Gottesman Hall of Planet Earth on the first floor is the first component of the Frederick Phineas and Sandra Priest Rose Center for Earth to open. The customized one-of-a-kind Zeiss Star Projector (Mark IX), the most advanced in the world, is installed in the new Hayden Planetarium. The C. V. Starr Natural Science Building opens.
- 2000: The Frederick Phineas and Sandra Priest Rose Center for Earth and Space opens to the public. The Arthur Ross Terrace opens adjacent to the Rose Center.
- 2001: The Judy and Josh Weston Pavilion opens, adding an entrance to the Museum on Columbus Avenue. The Discovery Room opens on the first floor.
- 2002: The Museum opens the renovated Samuel J. and Ethel LeFrak Theater. The Museum's main auditorium, restored to its late 19th-century design by Josiah Cleaveland Cady, is a venue for scientific lectures, meetings, public programs, and giant-screen films.
- 2003: The Museum opens the restored and renovated Milstein Hall of Ocean Life, which features high-definition video projections, interactive computer stations, hands-on models, 14 renovated classic dioramas, and eight new ocean ecosystem displays. The centerpiece of the hall remains the 94-foot model of a blue whale, now resculpted and repainted to more accurately reflect the appearance of a blue whale at sea. The Museum opens the reconceptualized and renovated Arthur Ross Hall of Meteorites. New exhibits, rare Moon and Mars rocks, and over 130 scientifically significant meteorites tell the story of the origins of the solar system.
- 2004: The Museum installs a new Earthquake Monitoring Station in the Gottesman Hall of Planet Earth. The seismograph records and illustrates real-time seismic data for the public via a global network of seismic stations accessible in real-time to the Museum and other similar institutions.
- 2005: The Museum marks the 70th Anniversary of the opening of the original Hayden Planetarium.
- 2006: The Museum hosts the premiere of the movie A Night at the Museum, based on the Museum and starring Ben Stiller, Mickey Rooney, and Dick Van Dyke. Afterward, the Museum inaugurates Night at the Museum Sleepovers for families and groups with children ages 6 to 13.
- 2006: The Richard Gilder Graduate School at the Museum is established, authorized by the State of New York to grant the M.Phil, Ph.D., and Honorary degrees and marking the first time an American museum was granted the authority to award its own Ph.D. degree.
Spotlight Web Resources
- 2007: The Museum opens the Anne and Bernard Spitzer Hall of Human Origins, which replaces the Hall of Human Biology and its 1990s renovation. The Hall now presents comprehensive evidence of human evolution. The new hall explores the most profound mysteries of humankind: who we are, where we came from, and what is in store for the future of humanity. Exhibits highlight the work of the Leakey Family, Donald Johanson, and paleoartist Viktor Deak among others.
- 2008: The first cohort of Ph.D. students in the new Comparative Biology program begins graduate studies at the Museum's Richard Gilder Graduate School.
- 2009: The Museum completes a major renovation and restoration project of the landmark 77th Street "castle" facade.
- 2011: The Master of Arts in Teaching Earth science, a unique residency program based at the Museum, is authorized as a pilot program by the New York State Department of Education.
- 2012: The restored Theodore Roosevelt Memorial and Bernard Family Hall of North American Mammals reopen to the public. The first cohort of students begins in the Master of Arts in Teaching Earth science residency program.
- 2015: Countdown to Zero: Defeating Disease, an exhibition developed with The Carter Center to highlight global efforts to fight infections including Guinea worm disease, opens at the Museum. President Jimmy Carter speaks at the exhibition opening.
- 2016: The Titanosaur, a 122-foot-long cast of a newly discovered dinosaur later formally named Patagotitan mayorum, goes on permanent display on the Museum's fourth floor.
- 2018: An updated exhibit about climate change opens in the Gottesman Hall of Planet Earth.
- 2019: The Museum's 150th celebration opens with T. Rex: The Ultimate Predator, a blockbuster exhibition about the tyrannosaur family. The Museum breaks ground on the Richard Gilder Center for Science, Education, and Innovation.
- 2020: The Museum closes its campus to visitors from March through September due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
- 2021: The Museum opens a mass New York City vaccination site under the blue whale, which sports a post-vaccination bandage on her fin in support of the COVID-19 vaccination program. The Allison and Roberto Mignone Halls of Gems and Minerals are opened to the public.
- 2020--2022: The Theodore Roosevelt Statue--which was criticized by some as a symbol of colonialism and racism--is removed from the front entrance of the Museum. It will be erected in 2026 at the new Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library in Medora, North Dakota.
- 2022: The revitalized Northwest Coast Hall reopens to the public.
- 2023: After nearly ten years of planning and occasional legal setbacks, the Richard Gilder Center for Science, Education, and Innovation opens. Sean M. Decatur becomes President. He is the institution's first Black president.
Spotlight Web Resources
The list of web links below is not exhaustive, but it provides a launching point for those wanting to learn more about the Museum’s history. The order of the links corresponds to the generally chronological presentation of topics in the PowerPoint slides in the 2-part presentation called THIRTY-FOUR MILLION TREASURES.