Picturing the Museum: Education and Exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History

The following chapter excerpt is from the second section of Digitization in the Real World; "A Diverse Digital Landscape: Digital Collections in Public Libraries, Museums, Cultural Heritage Institutions, and Knowledge-Based Organizations."  Download the entire chapter for free (PDF)  or purchase the entire book online at Amazon.com.

Access the collections here.


Kelli Anderson, Barbara Mathé, Eric Muzzy, Stacy Schiff (American Museum of Natural History Research Library)


Image 37244; Teachers selecting lantern slides for use in schools, Slide Room, Department of Public Education The Research Library of the American Museum of Natural History received funding from the Metropolitan New York Library Council in 2007 to produce a web exhibit of 989 historic images. Picturing the Museum: Education and Exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History served as the prototype for a comprehensive database for the Research Library’s extensive Photographic Collection. In the larger context of the history, development, and use of the Library’s Photographic Collection, this article describes the project's conception through a self-published book produced for the Trustees’ Library Committee, the funded project and the ongoing development of the larger database. One of the internal goals and results of the Picturing the Museum project was to analyze, codify, and document local practice, policies and workflow for more efficient delivery of images to the web.

The American Museum of Natural History Photographic Collection

Founded in 1869, the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) is one of the nation’s preeminent institutions for scientific research and public education. Throughout its history, the Museum has pursued joint missions of science and education. The Museum’s power to interpret wide-ranging scientific discoveries and convey them imaginatively has inspired generations of visitors to its grand exhibition halls and educated its visitors about the natural world and the vitality of human culture.

The Museum collections include over 32 million objects and specimens relating to anthropology, zoology, paleontology and the physical sciences. From the collected stories, clothing and material culture of the peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast to the dinosaur eggs unearthed in Mongolia, from meteorites brought back from Greenland on a wooden sailing ship by Robert Peary to one of the most comprehensive sets of fossil horses ever assembled, the breadth and variety of the collections is astonishing.

Illustrating the work of the Museum scientists and staff are over 1.5 million black and white negatives, color transparencies, lantern slides and photographic prints held in the AMNH Research Library. The majority of these photographs were taken by Museum explorers and scientists who documented their field work. At the same time, they photographed the local environment and the people who lived there. The physical growth of the Museum was recorded by staff photographers who also photographed the work of the exhibition and education departments. These images are requested by researchers, students, educators, and professionals from around the world for academic and general publication, educational broadcast and distribution, artists’ reference and personal use.

The dissemination of this extraordinary Photographic Collection can be traced directly to Museum founder Albert Bickmore, one of the earliest and most enthusiastic advocates of visual education. Bickmore’s lantern slide lectures were so successful that a new and larger theater was built in 1900 to accommodate the lines of teachers awaiting admission. To expand the Museum’s educational mission beyond its walls, Bickmore created a lantern slide lending library of over 140,000 slides. The slide library formed the basis of the Natural Science Study Collections that were delivered to schools throughout New York State. (see image above)

In addition to the slides, the Museum delivered specimens and, later, model dioramas accompanied by lectures prepared by the Museum’s educational and scientific staff. Bickmore’s initiative foreshadowed the digital distribution of images by over a century. It is now possible to create worldwide access to the Collection and the public has come to expect to be able to find images online. Organizing, describing and digitizing a photographic collection of this size, however, is an enormous undertaking.

Download the entire chapter for free (PDF) or purchase the entire book online at Amazon.com.


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