Lost Museums

Roy Plotnick
5 min readOct 19, 2022
Dental Museum of Northwestern University. Photo courtesy Katie Lattal

A 1905 list of mammoths and mastodons found in Illinois stated that “The tooth of a mammoth was taken from a gravel pit near Evanston. It was placed in the Museum of Northwestern University.” I was surprised when I read this, since I was unaware of any such museum. I also was very interested in finding the current whereabouts specimen, so I decided to track it (and the museum) down.

My colleagues at the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Northwestern were not aware of either the tooth or the museum. So I contacted the archivists at the university (archivists are some of my favorite people) and learned that a Northwestern University Museum of Natural History had once existed. Based on material in the archives, the museum may have existed as early as 1871; there are annual reports from 1871–1895 which include mentions of donated specimens, including a mastodon tusk and other fossils. The founder and curator of the museum from 1871 until his death was the geologist and botanist Oliver Marcy (1820–1899), who was responsible for curating more than 70,000 specimens across the natural sciences. According to NU archivist Kevin B. Leonard, “we have miscellaneous pieces of correspondence stating generally that the museum’s collection was deposited with Field, with the Chicago Academy of Sciences, with area secondary schools, with private collectors, and with the garbageman. Seems as though the wind left the museum’s sails when Oliver Marcy departed.” Mr. Leonard also supplied some photos of the museum, shown here.

Northwestern University Museum of Natural History (photo courtesy Kevin Leonard)

In addition to the Natural History Museum, Northwestern also had medical and dental school museums, also now closed. The curator of the Dental School Museum from 1914 to 1927 was William Bebb; some of his collection, which included mammoth and mastodon teeth, ended up at the Field Museum. As to the specimen that started the inquiry, it remains missing.

Mammoth tooth, originally at the Northwestern University Dental School (Bebb collection), now at the Field Museum (photo courtesy William Simpson)

Learning of the lost museums of Northwestern University made me think of other defunct museums. The University of Chicago had the Walker Museum of geology, built in 1893 and whose building still stands on the main quadrangle. Starting in 1947 with the vertebrate fossils, all of its collections were transferred to the Field Museum. In 1965 its complete collection of invertebrate fossils was donated, and the Walker Museum closed.

Notorious among many paleontologists is the fate of the natural history museum at Princeton University, once one of the premiere university-based museums in the country. Although Princeton had a natural history collection as far back as 1805, the museum had its origin in the Elizabeth Marsh Museum of Geology and Archeology, located in Nassau Hall from 1874–1909. Its founder was the Swiss geologist Arnold Guyot. In 1909, the museum moved to the newly constructed Guyot Hall and become part of the Princeton Museum of Natural History. Highlights of the museum were the skeleton of an Allosaurus and twenty-seven paintings by Charles Knight. In the late 1970’s, the Princeton geology department decided it needed more space for its library, so in 1980 a new library was constructed in much of the museum space. The geology department also deliberately moved away from paleontology as a discipline. This eventually led to the deaccession of nearly all of the fossil collection in 1985. The vertebrate paleontology collection, some 24,000 specimens, went intact to the Yale Peabody Museum (YPM). Shortly afterwards, the paleobotany and invertebrate paleontology collections were disbursed to institutions across the county, including the YPM, the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology, and the Field Museum. Vertebrate paleontologists roundly criticized the move, some of whom wrote in a letter to Science: “Geology is part the study of history, part the study of physical and biological processes. Without paleontology, geology is robbed of its historical and biological dimensions. In giving away its paleontological collections, Princeton has clearly failed to honor a major scientific trust.” In 2000, the remainder of the museum, reduced to mainly a display area, closed, to make room for a well-funded environmental science research unit (the Allosaurus remained). There was a vague promise that a new museum would be built. The Knight paintings are in storage at the university art museum. In 2019, it was announced that computer science would take over Guyot Hall and the building would be renamed, with geosciences moving to a new facility, presumably taking the Allosaurus with them. Whether this will include the long-promised museum is unclear.

The fates of the Northwestern, Chicago, and Princeton museums are large scale examples of the issues facing fossil collections and the study of paleontology that continue to this day. Many academic departments no longer have a paleontologist and thus no one to champion their fossil collections. Dozens of collections have been transferred to larger repositories, such as the Cincinnati Museum Center and the Paleontological Research Institution, who are bulging at the seams.

I feel this issue on a personal level. Now that I have officially retired, I have begun to think about the fate of all the fossils I have collected over the years. Although I am not a field-oriented paleontologist, they still fill six cabinets. Some will go into our teaching collections and into museums. But what will I do with the rest? There is no immediate prospect of another paleontologist being hired at my position

There are some paleontologists whose collections exceed mine by orders of magnitude and worry about what will happen to them. These are “orphan collections,” defined as “A collection with scientific value that has been amassed by an individual or group that no longer wishes or is unable to curate and/or maintain the collection” (Allmon and Lane 2000, Paleo. Soc Special Pub 10). Their fate remains a current topic of concern.

We tend to think of museums as permanent storehouses. Many journals now require that only specimens that are deposited in a public repository can be published. But will these repositories still exist in the future? And how about the scientists needed to study them?

My thanks to Kevin Leonard,University Archivist and Katie Lattal, Special Collections Librarian, Northwestern University for providing information on their lost museums; to William Simpson for helping track down the Bebb specimens at the Field Museum, and my numerous colleagues who shared their thoughts and information on the Princeton collection.

DO YOU KNOW OF A “LOST MUSEUM?” PLEASE CONTACT ME.

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Roy Plotnick

Paleontologist, geologist, ecologist, educator. Professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Author of Explorers of Deep Time.