Founding the Museum

Page 5 of 8

Admission Ticket

museum ticket

American Philosophical Society

Above is a ticket of admission to Peale's museum, dated September 25, 1826, and signed by Franklin Peale (1795-1870). Nature is symbolized by an open book promising the secrets of some of the creatures represented by mounted specimens in the museum. Clockwise from lower left those include: bald (American) eagle, ostrich, [shorebird?], woodpecker, toucan, great horned owl, pheasant, two bats, flying squirrel, tree squirrel, elk, bison, soft-shelled turtle, porcupine, several crustaceans, and a crab. The paddlefish at bottom center, labeled "1st Article of Museum 1784," was Robert Patterson's contribution to the Museum.

Benjamin Franklin returned from Paris in 1785. Peale, along with other men of differing political opinions and some notable foreigners, was elected to the American Philosophical Society. Old political animosities seemed (at least to Peale) to be dying; a new country was bright with promise. Franklin encouraged the museum idea, and Peale received advice and eventually much more from the Society.

The idea for the museum took shape in 1784. Peale then had in his possession mastodon bones from Big Bone Lick on the Ohio River; he had been commissioned to draw them. Colonel Nathaniel Ramsay, Peale's brother-in-law, enthusiastically examined the bones and thought them even more of an attraction than the portrait gallery. Peale discussed the idea of a museum of natural history with others, particularly Robert Patterson (a secretary of the APS who would later be one of Meriwether Lewis' Philadelphia tutors). Patterson gave Peale what would forever after be labeled the first gift to the museum: a preserved paddlefish.1

Peale was the right person at the right time. His artistic talent, love of public approval, energy and enthusiasm for the new and untried suited him to the task. It was a patriotic project as well, intent on showcasing the natural treasures of the new country. Models of museums existed in Europe, where national institutions had developed from private collections. Indeed, from the start Peale saw his museum as a national one that would eventually be funded by the government, although despite his best efforts and closeness personally to many of the political elite—and until 1800 being located next to the seat of government—such funding proved chimerical.

Peale's museum was not the first in America. In the 1770s the APS itself had a "cabinet," and Charlestown, Pennsylvania, attempted to establish a museum.2 Pierre Eugène Du Simitière, a painter like Peale, had established a natural history museum in Philadelphia in 1782, a rather small, personal operation open for a limited time each week. Du Simitière died in 1785, and his collection broken up.3 Peale's institution would be the first museum in America that we would recognize as such.

It is possible to view Peale's enterprise as a precursor of the Smithsonian. Although a private enterprise, it had a close association with U.S. government, which provided some support—making the State House available as a venue, for instance. Specimens from government expeditions were deposited there. The collection was "Smithsonian" in breadth. Public education was an important part of its mission. But in Peale, the indefatigable promoter, one can observe the outline of P. T. Barnum. While Peale's museum was never like the boisterous freak show that Barnum created, keeping the interest of the public—providing "rational amusement" as Peale termed it—and creating a steady income were important. There was the search for the novel and exotic (the five-legged cow stayed on display), the musical entertainments in the evenings, the organ in the museum, the booth with the physiognotrace (a machine for making silhouettes), and the exploding of the small wooden house by electricity, all done with the intention of keeping the public's interest and increasing profits.

Peale's Museum, however, is most accurately seen as an 18th century institution, one that, as Hart and Ward write, "reflected eighteenth-century Enlightenment and republican ideas about order, harmony, and civic virtue."4 Nature was ordered, harmonious, God's perfect creation. Contemplating the endless variety of the "great chain of being" brought one closer to understanding God's benevolence:

In any one of the departments of animal Nature the variety is so great of the wonderful provision to sustain and keep in equal equilebriam each sustaining link to complete a whole system, as must astonish every being who contemplates the perfection of these regulated laws stamped on them by an allwise, all good, and all benevolent power!5

The virtues in Nature can promote virtue in humanity.  Would that ministers more frequently "illustrate the goodness of the almighty in the provisions he has made for the happiness of all his creatures, that excellent code of Christianity would produce more voteries of Charity; love and forbearance with each other."6

Educating the public in Nature's virtues—displaying, for the public's benefit, "the world in miniature"—also promotes civic virtue, an educated public being necessary for the survival of a republic. "In a country whose institutions all depend upon the virtue of the people, which in its turn is secure only as they are well informed, the promotion of knowledge is the first of duties."7 And citizens, regardless of formal education, could study "the open book of nature" to discover directly the truth of God's world, either on their own or laid out in Linnæan order in Peale's museum.8 Just as important, the study of all Nature—animate and inanimate, plants and animals and humans—would secure for all humankind future health, happiness, and prosperity. The American Philosophical Society was founded upon such an idea. "Philosophy" in the 18th century was broadly conceived as all knowledge, and knowledge had unity and utility. Explaining the nature of electricity or heavenly motion, describing new species, and developing a new plow were not qualitatively different acts.

Charles Willson Peale would for about two decades devote himself mainly to his museum. In April 1794 he announced he was giving up portrait painting. He did everything in the museum, his family assisting: promotion, obtaining and mounting specimens (family bird hunts occurred regularly), painting backdrops, caring for live specimens, arranging the museum systematically, working to improve attractions and display space. Instrumental in the success of the museum was his association with the APS. Elected a member in 1786, Peale, after initial irregular attendance, attended meetings regularly, serving as curator of the APS collection, writing pieces for Transactions, seeking advice and support from members, and literally setting up shop in the APS's building, Philosophical Hall.9

Peale's museum philosophy has been summarized to show how closely it was associated with the new Republic's conception of itself. The heyday of the museum was during what has been called the age of Jefferson.10 Jefferson was President of the United States and simultaneously president of the American Philosophical Society. He and Peale held similar political views (although the artist had given up politics as such). Certainly Jefferson supported and helped to sustain Peale. The two men corresponded regularly, their relationship being closest during the time of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, the same time when Peale was promoting his polygraph, the machine capable of producing two copies of a document at once that both he and Jefferson used.

But a real intellectual connection existed in the two men's belief that the study of nature in all its manifestations promoted republican virtue and aided in improving the welfare of humankind. Meriwether Lewis imbibed the ideas of the age of Jefferson while serving as his secretary. Lewis and Clark's trip was organized as a military expedition and had economic and geopolitical goals, but Lewis, surveying the vast country he traversed, saw the "open book of nature" displayed before him, its beauty and variety inspiring poetic journal entries, all the while seeing the utility of the plants, animals, minerals, and soil he found, observing and recording the cultures of the peoples he encountered. If the expedition can be said to have carried with it a philosophy, it was the study of nature and man as Jefferson and Peale viewed it.


1. Polyodon spathula. (The generic term is Greek for "many-toothed"; the specific epithet spathula refers to the flat, spatula-shaped snout.) Charles Coleman Sellers, Mr. Peale's Museum:  Charles Willson Peale and the First Popular Museum of Natural Science and Art, a Barra Foundation book, (New York, W. W. Norton, 1980), 12.  Hereafter cited as:  Sellers, Museum.

2. George Gaylord Simpson, "The First Natural History Museum in America," Science, n.s. vol. 96, no. 2490, Sept. 18,1942, 261-63.

3.  Martin Levey, "The First American Museum of Natural History," Isis, vol. 42, no. 1 (April 1951), 10-12.

4. Sidney Hart and David C. Ward, "The Waning of an Enlightenment Ideal:  Charles Willson Peale's Philadelphia Museum, 1790-1820," Journal of the Early Republic, vol. 8, no, 4, Winter 1988, 392.  Hereafter cited as Hart and Ward.

5. Peale Papers, vol. 5 (The Autobiography of Charles Willson Peale), 271-72. Throughout this essay quotations from Peale's writings are presented verbatim.

6. Ibid., 272.

7. Charles Willson Peale, "Memorial to the Pennsylvania Legislature," from American Daily Advertiser, Dec. 26, 1795, Peale Papers, vol. 2 (Charles Willson Peale:  The Artist as Museum Keeper, 1791-1810), pt. 1, 137.

8. Peale also gave a series of public lectures beginning in 1799 that served both to educate the public and promote the educational stature of the Museum.

9. Peale attended only two meetings after 1811; General Lafayette was present at one of them. APS Minutes, 1805-1828.

10. John C. Greene, American Science in the Age of Jefferson. Ames, Iowa State University Press, 1984.

Funded in part by a grant from the National Park Service, Challenge-Cost Share Program