American Museum of Natural History

views updated May 21 2018


AMERICAN MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY in New York City is the largest natural history museum in the world. It displays more than 30 million specimens from all branches of natural history along with a wealth of anthropological artifacts in a vast complex of interconnected buildings on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

The museum was founded in 1869 by some of New York City's wealthiest men, who hoped a natural history museum would impart prestige to their city and educate the working classes about the laws of nature. As with the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which opened in 1870, the American Museum of Natural History soon became one of the pet philanthropies of the New York aristocracy. While the municipality funded the operation and maintenance of the facilities, the wealthy trustees, including the Dodge, Huntington, Morgan, Rockefeller, Schiff, Vanderbilt, and Whitney families, were responsible for acquiring and managing the collections. This method of financing has continued, supplemented by endowments, membership dues, and entrance fees.

The museum was originally situated in the Arsenal Building in Central Park. In 1874, President Ulysses S. Grant laid the cornerstone for the museum's permanent home, which opened in 1877. As the collections steadily grew in size, the museum pioneered in dioramas and other lifelike displays that presented large or striking specimens of flora and fauna in their natural habitats. Most famously, by the early 1900s the museum had acquired the world's largest collection of dinosaur bones, which subsequently were mounted in exhibits that corrected previous errors in interpretation and presentation.

The museum conducts a wide range of educational activities for the public and publishes the monthly magazine Natural History. It also sponsors hundreds of working scientists, who continue the legacy of the researchers Carl Akeley, Roy Chapman Andrews, Franz Boas, Margaret Mead, and Henry Fairfield Osborn.


Hellman, Geoffrey. Bankers, Bones, and Beetles: The First Century of the American Museum of Natural History. Garden City, N.Y.: Natural History Press, 1969.

Kennedy, John Michael. "Philanthropy and Science in New York City: The American Museum of Natural History, 1868–1968." Ph.D. diss., Yale University, 1968.

Rainger, Ronald. An Agenda for Antiquity: Henry Fairfield Osborn and Vertebrate Paleontology at the American Museum of Natural History, 1890–1935. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1991.

Jonathan P.Spiro

See alsoPhilanthropy ; Science Museums .

American Museum of Natural History

views updated May 23 2018

American Museum of Natural History

New York City's American Museum of Natural History—with its giant dinosaur skeletons and detailed dioramas—is both a primary repository for the scientific discoveries relating to the natural world and a major tourist attraction. Opened in 1869 when the Upper West Side of Manhattan was still on the edge of civilization, the fortress-like Museum later added wings reaching Central Park West and a major planetarium wholly updated in the 1990s. From a few hundred mounted birds and mammals, the museum's collection has grown to include more fossils, mammals, and dinosaurs than any other museum in the world. Critics have charged the museum with being an agent of colonialism and exploitation and have found the statue of President Theodore Roosevelt on horseback flanked by a walking Black and American Indian in front of the principal entrance an apt symbol of their charge. Such criticisms have not minimized the pleasures of the millions of people who visit the museum annually. In The Catcher in the Rye J. D. Salinger captured the delight of many visitors when his character Holden Caulfield fondly remembered his regular school visits to the museum, saying "I get very happy when I think about it."

—Richard Martin

Further Reading:

Oliver, James A. "American Museum of Natural History at 100."Nature March 28, 1970.

Osborn, Henry Fairfield. American Museum of Natural History: It's Origins, It's History, the Growth of It's Departments to December 31, 1909. New York, Irving Press, 1911.

Titcomb, Mary. American Museum of Natural History. Austin, Texas, Booklab, 1991.

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American Museum of Natural History (New York New York)

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American Museum of Natural History (New York New York)