Timeline [Image of Cohoes Mastodon]
Our history of inquiry, discovery, and education began in 1836 when we were established as the State Geological and Natural History Survey. Over the years, we have grown into a major research and an educational institution dedicated to preserving New York's rich artistic, social, historical, and environmental legacies under the leadership of the New York State Education Department.

1800s: The Museum's Founding Fathers
In the early 1800s, the study of natural science (zoology, botany, geology) in America was primitive and naive. For instance, countrymen still clung to the belief that birds spent the winter hibernating in mud. Aside from medicine, the only sciences taught at universities were chemistry, physics, and mineralogy. The natural sciences, on the other hand, were conducted by what were essentially “educated hobbyists.”
Image of Museum's Founding Fathers

1836: Creation of the Geological and Natural History Survey

On April 15, 1836, Governor William Marcy appointed the staff of the state's first official Geological and Natural History Survey to conduct “a grand and comprehensive collection of the natural productions of the State of New York to exhibit under one roof its animal, mineral and vegetable wealth.”

With that appointment, the story of the State Museum officially began.

Map of New York State's Geological Districts

Crates and barrels of fossils, rocks, and mineral specimens collected during the Survey eventually filled three rooms in Old State Hall. In an effort to end confusion over the status of the collections which sat unstudied and disorganized for seven years, the Legislature created the “State Cabinet of Natural History.”

At that time, however, the Cabinet was organized strictly for the safekeeping of the collections, with no plans for future additions.

Geological and Agricultural Hall

Geological and Agricultural Hall

During its first two years, the Cabinet simply “existed.” Finally, in 1845, the Legislature placed it under the Board of Regents, hired John W. Taylor as a curator, and, nine years after the first geological and paleontological specimens were hauled in by the crateful, the Cabinet opened its doors to the public. Select objects were on display from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. daily.

Over the next several decades, the State Cabinet's collections grew to include thousands of specimens spanning the fields of geology, paleontology, botany, entomology, ethnology, archaeology, and history.

Collection Cases

Collections Cases from the 1950s

1847: Beginning's of the Museum's Anthropological and Historical Collections
The Museum's collections of Indian artifacts, both archaelogical and ethnological, were initiated in 1847 when the Regents established an Historical and Antiquarian Collection. In a circular, they asked their "fellow citizens ... [for] their aid, in furnishing the relics of the ancient masters of the soil, and the monuments and remembrances of our colonial and revolutionary history."

One of the first to respond was Lewis H. Morgan, who was later called the "Father of American Anthropology" for his pioneering ethnographic work. In 1849-50, Morgan collected and documented for the Museum the complete range of objects being made and used by members of New York Iroquois tribes, particularly the Seneca, at the time.

Lewis H. Morgan

Lewis Henry Morgan

1847: State Cabinet of Natural History Moves into Geological and Agricultural Hall
Within ten years, the Cabinet had amassed more collections than Old State Hall could accommodate. Despite public desire to expand the building, it was found unsafe to attempt additions to it, so a new building was erected in its place.

Upon completion in 1857, Geological and Agricultural Hall became the State Cabinet's headquarters and the focus shifted from housing a collection of objects to regarding the museum as "a living, not static, organization. To be of value, it must constantly grow in all fields."

Geological & Agricultural Hall

Geological & Agricultural Hall

1866: Discovery of the Cohoes Mastodon
The Cohoes Mastodon was discovered in 1866 during construction of Harmony Mill No. 3 near Cohoes Falls on the Mohawk River. The mastodon's remains were found deeply buried in two potholes, which had been worn into the bedrock by the swirling action of water and stones at the end of the last Ice Age.

Since its discovery, the Cohoes Mastodon has been one of the State Museum’s treasures. First mounted and displayed in 1867 in the Geological and Agricultural Hall, the mastodon has been viewed by millions of visitors.

Geologists, including James Hall, at the discovery site of the Cohoes Mastodon

Geologists, including James Hall, at the discovery site of the Cohoes Mastodon

1870: State Cabinet Officially Renamed the New York State Museum of Natural History
On May 2, 1870, the State Cabinet of Natural History was deemed by Legislature to be "a museum of scientific and practical geology and general natural history" and its name was officially changed to "The New York State Museum of Natural History."

James Hall, who held the title of both State Geologist and State Paleontologist, was appointed as the Museum's first director.

The annual budget allocated for the director, three assistants, and maintenance of the collections was $10,000.

James Hall

James Hall
Museum Director 1870-1898


Museum Hours: Open Monday through Saturday from 9:30 am to 5:00 pm | For information, 518-474-5877
The NYS Museum is a program of The University of the State of New York
New York State Education Department | Office of Cultural Education