In fact, a natural history museum had been in the works for a few years. In 1891, Harvard professor Frederic Ward Putnam, in town to help oversee anthropological exhibits at the exposition, exhorted members of the Commercial Club of Chicago to establish a museum using the objects that would be left over from the fair. An aspiring city like Chicago, Putnam argued, needed a major museum of natural history to compete culturally with East Coast cities, and Chicagoans agreed. When retail magnate Marshall Field offered a million-dollar check for the project, the Field Museum was born.
While still in its Jackson Park location, the Field Museum (along with the Art Institute) underwent an important administrative change in 1903. Ownership of both institutions passed from the city to the newly constituted South Park Commission, one of three autonomous park districts established as a Progressive-era reform.
In its current building, the museum houses over 10 million specimens. It has sponsored scientific expeditions around the world, and it publishes a scholarly research journal. Starting with a gift of $250,000 made by Norman Harris in 1911, the museum has also sponsored extensive outreach programs for schoolchildren. As a result, thousands of school groups troop through the galleries each year.
Since its founding, the Field Museum has evolved into one of the great natural history museums in the world. In this country only the American Museum in New York and the Smithsonian in Washington compete with it in terms of size, influence, and prestige.
Alexander, Edward. Museums in Motion: An Introduction to the History and Functions of Museums. 1979.
Conn, Steven. Museums and American Intellectual Life, 1876–1926. 1998.
Horowitz, Helen. Culture and the City: Cultural Philanthropy in Chicago from the 1880s to 1917. 1976.
The Electronic Encyclopedia of Chicago © 2005 Chicago Historical Society.
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