A Short History of the Oberlin College Museum
As early as the 1850s, George N. Allen, Professor of Sacred Music and Natural History, had begun collecting specimens in the basement of the Music Hall. In 1859 Allen sent out a circular asking for donations of specimens, but it seems that informal requests had been circulating for several years earlier. Wright collected the bulk of the early College Cabinet from Northeast Ohio (including Ohio fossils) and from trips to Jamaica in 1863, to the West in 1868, and to upstate New York in 1869. Contributions from Oberlin alumni, many doing missionary work across the globe, helped the Cabinet expand rapidly. Unlike many other college Cabinets, in the Oberlin Cabinet very few specimens were bought from natural history suppliers; the Cabinet relied on donations, faculty and student collections, and exchange with other museums and dealers across the globe.
In 1870 Allen prepared a report for the Trustees on the condition of the College Cabinet, beginning a long saga of complaints about lack of space and funds for the collections. “The Hall contains at present as many cases as the rooms will admit. In this respect, indeed, no change or addition has been made for several years past. The shelves and spaces too are all filled with specimens while most of them are crowded far beyond what is desirable for proper presentation…. Most of the collecting made since then [5 or 6 years before] are necessarily bestowed in boxes placed under the cases, thereby considerably disfiguring the otherwise respectable appearance of the rooms.”
He discusses the collections themselves, including new donations from Rev. A. Bushnell of the “Gaboon Mission, West Africa,” who donated ethnological specimens and the skeleton and skin of an adult gorilla. The Zoological collections, he says, represent a very general collection in the field. In Herpetology, “We possess, however, many fine specimens of saurians and luphideans, and some rare fishes, but they at present, for the sake of saving alcohol, crowded together in what jars we have and excluded from view” (Allen’s emphasis). Allen obtained a cetacean skull, which remains in the current Biology department collection, as well.
Albert A. Wright, Allen’s nephew, joined the Oberlin faculty as Professor of Geology and Natural History in 1874. Under his direction the College Museum would see its greatest expansion. In 1875 the collections were moved to Cabinet Hall, built specifically for exhibition and for recitation space. The Cabinet begins to be called “Museum,” after the fashion of the times, in the 1880s. An undated list labeled “College Cabinet” found in Wright’s papers shows the extent of the collection at the beginning of his tenure.
Geological and Fossil specimens 1100
Shells 1000 trays
Stuffed animals (230 birds) 350
Insects 20 cases
Zoological specimens (Miscell.) 100
Corals 1 case
Curiosities & Foreign 200
100 boxes not opened—
Cabinet Hall caught on fire three times during the Cabinet’s time there, but no specimens were damaged. Thus when the collections, and the entire Department of Natural History, were moved to the first floor of the new Spear Library on Tappan Square in 1885, the building was lauded as fireproof.
The collections grew at such a pace that even the new space was inadequate. The College Library, under the direction of Azariah Root, expanded quickly as well, and not only were both the Natural History Department and the Library pressed for space, the foundation of the building was highly stressed. Plans were drawn up in the 1890s for a new Geology and Zoology building, a huge castle-like edifice in the style of Talcott Hall, with spaces for two separate museums, for Geology and for Natural History, to be located at the Allen Art Museum’s current location. Budget troubles made this impossible, and in fact the College’s natural history collections have never had a building specifically built to hold them.
Meanwhile, the collections continued to grow. In 1887 Wright hired a preparator, a student named Louis M. McCormick. McCormick mounted and identified specimens, solicited museums and collectors for further specimens, and went on collecting trips on the Museum’s behalf. In the Fall of 1887, McCormick went to Washington D.C. to the then U.S. National Museum (now the Smithsonian). In exchange for work done by McCormick for Smithsonian naturalists, the Oberlin museum received about 200 birds, a set of rocks, 100 reptiles, 12 vertebrate fossils, and pamphlets on geological topics from the collection of Dr. F.V. Hayden, who also underwrote the trip. (McCormick’s report to Wright, April 16, 1888.) Louis McCormick worked for the Museum until 1892. He never officially graduated from the College department, but became a bacteriologist and the Head of Sanitation of Asheville, N.C. In 1888 the Museum also received several thousand specimens of shells, presented by the Hon. Eli T. Tappan, and 1250 specimens of minerals and fossils collected by the late Dr. Adney of Pennsylvania. McCormick also worked with the U.S. Fish Commission and obtained 600 specimens of Atlantic Coast fishes for his efforts. Rev. Edwin H. Richards, ’77, a missionary in Africa and later the Head of Episcopal missions in East Africa, contributed a great deal of ethnographic and zoological specimens from Zimbabwe and South Africa. Richards’ letters to A.A. Wright are lucidly written and have a great deal of historical and sociological interest.
In 1892 the collections in Botany and the College Herbarium were removed from the main collections and quartered in the Botany Department’s new space in Finney House. In 1895 Lynds Jones was hired as an Assistant Curator and an Instructor in Zoology. Due to the never-remedied overcrowding of the Museum, the collections in Geology, Paleontology, Zoology and Anthropology were moved to Bradley Auditorium on the third floor of Peters Hall in 1904. Professor Wright died in 1905, having greatly expanded the collections, recorded them in a Museum Catalogue and Accession Book, and having advanced the cause of Natural History at Oberlin College; but never having seen his precious collections housed in a proper museum or even their own building.
Geology specimens were displayed in Peters until the Geology department received their own building in 1906, in the former Squire residence. The Carnegie Library was built in 1908, and Spear Library became Spear Zoological Laboratory, with the entire third floor being put aside to house the collections “in order to facilitate their use for classroom study” (Course Catalog, 1908). However, Charles Martin Hall’s 1914 bequest to the College meant that all buildings on Tappan Square, including the Spear Lab, were to be torn down. The Zoology Department and the Museum were shifted to various temporary spaces until 1927, when the former Second Methodist Church was converted into laboratory space, called Wright Zoological Laboratory. Lynds Jones remained curator of the Museum, but collecting was no longer a primary task. Focus in the Zoology Department had shifted away from systematics; to ecology under Jones’ son George; to physiology and histological and microbiological techniques under Hope Hibbard in the 1930s and 40s. George Jones, an ornithologist, led students on trips to the American West through the 1930s, but he brought back few specimens, teaching a new conservation ethic.
Warren Walker, who joined the Zoology Department in 1946, took over the maintenance of the museum’s collections. He simplified record-keeping by discontinuing the use of the Museum’s Accession Book, writing on the flyleaf: “Discontinued 1949 as all data can be entered in catalogue and this is a duplication.” Indeed, Walker made a number of entries to the Museum Catalogue. The Catalogue, lost for many years, was discovered by Catherine McCormick, Professor of Biology, in her office in Kettering Hall in 2001 as she was moving to the New Science Center. The catalogue poses many puzzles. Specimens are not entered in chronological order, full records of locality are not given, and some specimens are undated. Most entries are in the handwriting of A.A. Wright or Lewis McCormick, but some are in unidentifiable handwriting. The very last entry in the catalogue is an insect specimen, collected in 1964. The numbers of specimens entered in major categories (over 2 pp.) in the Catalogue are as follows, with the dates of earliest and latest specimen dates entered:
Mammals 125 1885;1953
Birds 2225 1869;1964
“Batrachians” (Amphibians) 75 1886;1949
Fishes 450 1885;1903
Insects 175 1889;1964
In 1959 Wright Lab was torn down. The Catalogue shows many specimens, especially of birds and fishes, crossed out, with the date “1958.” Apparently there would not be enough space in the new building to house the collections. Many specimens were deaccessioned or sold or, in the case of several ethnographical specimens, transferred to the Allen Art Museum. It is impossible to know how much exactly was deaccessioned at that time, given that the Biology Department does not have a recent catalogue. It is also difficult to pinpoint when archaeological and ethnographic specimens were transferred to the Anthropology Department.
The Biology department and its remaining collections were housed in the new Hales Gymnasium Addition until Kettering Hall was completed in 1961. The Oberlin Observer reports that the Kettering architects made no plans for first floor display cases for specimens and that Warren Walker suggested they be built into the spaces between the sheathed ductwork in the halls (Oberlin Observer, vol. 2, no. 13, p. 3). The collections have ceased to be a priority for the College or even the Biology Department. Many specimens are currently used for classroom instruction. The College recently hired an ornithologist, for instance, who uses College’s extensive bird collection. The vertebrate and invertebrate specimens are used for instruction in systematics, evolution, and physiology of those animals. The Geology department uses its collection for instruction as well. The Oberlin College Museum’s collections are of great historical as well as biological interest, and should be catalogued and curated fully and systematically.Author: Suzanne M. Fischer, Winter Term 2002
The records of the Oberlin College Museum were received in several separate accessions. The museum accession records were found in Asia House in 1975 and were subsequently transferred to the Archives by Peg Leonard (accession 265) and the Office of the Treasurer in 1984 (accession 1984/4). The museum catalogue was received from the Biology Department in 2001 (accession 2001/130) and a circular (c. 1859) about the museum was transferred from the Oberlin College Library, Department of Special Collections in 2002 (accession 2002/004).
In September 2005 the Museum Catalogue, 1887-1964 (1 vol.), was copied to preserve the original. Researchers use the photocopy. This accounts for the increase in the total volume of the collection from 1.0 to 1.2 linear feet.
Henry Cowles Papers (30/027)
Albert Allen Wright Papers (30/017)
Jones Family Papers (30/107)
The records of the Oberlin College Museum, 1877-1964, include correspondence, inventories, an accession book, and a catalogue that contains information relating to the acquisition of specimens for the natural history museum. The Accession Book covers the period 1855-1949 and contains entries that include the name of the donor, date received, a description of the specimen, and the accession number. The correspondence files contain letters from individual donors. Inventory and specimen lists, that provide detail about the holdings of the College Museum, are also included.
A small amount of financial records contains information about the business aspects of the museum. Individual ledger sheets document expenditures for staff and supplies.
Documentation for work completed by Professors Henry C. Cowles, Albert A. Wright, and Lynds Jones is included. These records illustrate the amount of work and detail that was involved in caring for the specimens in the Oberlin College Museum.