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.”
Five prominent figures in New York State’s history paved the way for the creation of a State Geological and Natural History Survey that would not only elevate the status of the Natural Sciences and its impassioned hobbyists, but also set the standard for all other U.S. geological surveys and, ultimately, laid the foundation for the New York State Museum.
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.
1843: CREATION OF THE STATE CABINET OF NATURAL HISTORY
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
1845: STATE CABINET COLLECTIONS OPENED TO THE PUBLIC
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.
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 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
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
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.
Museum Director 1870-1898