Within the Princeton University community, it is relatively well-known that Nassau Hall, the university’s flagship building, was once the site of a Revolutionary War battle and served as the capitol building of the United States. It is far less recognized as the former home of one of the first natural science museums in America, much less the second museum in the world to ever display a dinosaur skeleton.
In the middle of the 19th century, the Swiss-American geographer Arnold Guyot—one of the discoverers of the last Ice Age—began a lengthy and influential tenure as a director of the geology and geography departments at the then-named College of New Jersey (renamed Princeton in 1896).
At Princeton, he also became the first curator of the E. M. Museum of Geology and Archaeology, which was housed in Nassau Hall. Before the E.M. Museum, most natural science museums in the United States were eclectic collections of curios without any organization, much less an overarching method or worldview. Guyot, however, designed his museum so that it could demonstrate to a visitor ‘the history of the world at a glance’—in a manner similar to the presentation of his image-centric textbook, Physical Geography, published in 1873.
This museum housed a surprising array of artifacts—from Japanese swords to classical statues, from precious minerals to portraits of the Founding Fathers. And yet, the exhibits maintained a clear organization, one that emphasized a Manifest Destiny-view of the universe.
To learn more about this curious institution, read my history article, “Princeton’s Lost Museum: Arnold Guyot’s E.M. Museum and the Great Juncture of American Natural History Museums in the Late 19th Century” in the Fall 2017 issue of the Princeton Historical Review, available in PDF format. Follow this link and find the article on pages 22-50.
The featured photo of this post is from the Mudd Manuscript Library, and whose citation follows: Pach Brothers, E.M. Museum of Geology and Archaeology, Photograph, ca. 1886, Box MP42, Item 1256, Princeton University Library. Department of Rare Books and Special Collections. Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript Library.