Field Museum History

A history in Chicago, and work that takes us all around the world. 

World's Columbian Exposition

Chicago played host to the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, organized to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s arrival in “the New World.” The six-month event drew 27 million people to the city.

A glittering showcase of art, architecture, technology, and global culture, the event introduced the world to the Ferris wheel, newly invented products such as Cream of Wheat, and multitudes of rare objects that would later enter the collections of a brand-new natural history museum in Chicago.

Establishment

A Chicago Tribune article by Professor Frederic Ward Putnam first suggested that a museum be formed as a result of the exposition—three years before the exposition even took place. 

But the most instrumental figure in making the dream of the museum a reality was Marshall Field, a local business magnate. Field was known to support any plan for increasing Chicago’s access to cultural and educational facilities, and the museum was no exception. 

Edward E. Ayer, who would later become the museum’s first president, called Field to solicit his support for the museum, and after some consideration, Field offered $1 million. Field’s contribution—plus contributions from other wealthy donors—ensured the success and permanence of a great museum in Chicago. Their donations helped purchase the first collections of what would soon become the Columbian Museum of Chicago. 

The state of Illinois approved the charter that officially created the Columbian Museum of Chicago—which was quickly renamed the Field Columbian Museum to honor its first major benefactor. On June 2, 1894, the museum opened to the public in the Palace of Fine Arts Building in Jackson Park (which was rebuilt in the 1930s and now houses the Museum of Science and Industry).

The Palace of Fine Arts building in Jackson Park, originally the fine art gallery for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, was the Field Museum’s first home. 

In 1894, collections on display in the West Court included a wedge of a giant redwood tree, a mastodon skeleton, and a mammoth model. The museum’s original collections, including these items and tens of thousands more, were acquired from exhibitions at the World's Columbian Exposition, which took place the previous year.

Collection and expeditions

Our collection began with objects that had been on display at the exposition, from anthropological artifacts and geological specimens to an extensive botany collection. The Museum’s earliest acquisitions included the Ward’s natural history collection, the entire Tiffany & Co. gem display, a collection of pre-Columbian gold ornaments, musical instruments from Samoa and Java, and a large collection of Native American objects.

Museum researchers went on expeditions right from the start—beginning in 1894—as a way to both expand the collection and document diverse life and environments around the world. In 1896, Carl Akeley and David Giraud Elliot traveled to Africa, the first expedition there organized by a North American museum. Expeditions continued on through two world wars, and our scientists are still traveling to all corners of the earth.

Today, the collection contains nearly 40 million objects, only a fraction of which are on display to the public—and our collections staff continually works to make more of our specimens and artifacts accessible in new ways. World-renowned items on display include Egyptian mummies, the man-eating lions of Tsavo, and SUE, the largest and most complete Tyrannosaurus rex ever discovered—and there is so much more in the research collections.

New home

The museum’s extensive collection continued to grow, but the Palace of Fine Arts building was not aging gracefully. The search began for a site to rebuild the museum. 

After much deliberation on the site and style of the museum’s new home, construction began in 1915 on a new building at a site near Grant Park. The building, designed by architect Peirce Anderson of Graham, Anderson, Probst and White, cost $7 million to build and was part of Daniel Burnham’s 1909 Plan of Chicago.

In March 1920, crews began the arduous task of moving the museum’s collection to its new home. Specimens were loaded into crates and transported by rail and horse-drawn carriage. 

Research 

We continue to carry out cutting-edge research on the items in our collection as well as gather new specimens and objects through ongoing modern research far beyond our walls. More than 150 scientists work in the Museum’s Integrative Research Center, Gantz Family Collections Center, and Keller Science Action Center. 

Our research is rooted in the four major areas of our collections: anthropology, botany, geology, and zoology.

Anthropology

Renowned anthropologist Frederic Ward Putnam envisioned a museum that would grow out of the World’s Columbian Exposition before it even began. As the fair’s curator of anthropology, he focused on gathering archaeological material from the Americas—which  joined the Museum’s collection when the fair ended. 

Over the years, the Museum’s anthropology research expanded worldwide, with field programs in Oceania and the Philippines in the early 1900s and expeditions to South and Central America in the 1920s and ‘30s. Landmark research efforts in China, Iraq, Madagascar, and the Pacific Northwest and American Southwest extended into the mid-20th century.

Today, Field Museum anthropologists continue to study and preserve the irreplaceable cultural heritage of humankind. With active research in Greece, Hungary, Peru, Mexico, China, the Pacific, and the United States, their work follows five general themes: emergence, change in political hierarchy, human-environment interaction, economic anthropology, and urban culture.

Botany

In 1893, the Field hired Charles Millspaugh as its first botany curator—he was not only a botanist but also a physician and expert in medicinal plants. After acquiring plant materials at the World’s Columbian Exposition, Millspaugh set off to collect plants in Mexico’s Yucatán region. This work set the stage for a long series of botanical exploration in the tropical Americas, which is still going strong today. Later expeditions solidified the Field as one of the world’s top repositories of South American plants and a destination for Neotropical botany researchers.

The Field’s botany and mycology research continues to grow, with staff focusing on Asian plants, fungi, lichens, bryophytes, and mosses. Our botanists and mycologists are internationally recognized leaders in plant and fungi evolution and  ecology, producing research that informs conservation and climate research.

This black-and-white photograph shows a family peering into boxes full of mollusk shells. A woman picks a child up to give them a closer look.

Museum patrons examine items from the zoology invertebrates collection at a Members' Night event in May 1964. The annual event, developed to share the Museum’s research and growing collections with the public, began in 1951.

Geology 

Our paleontology work began with a vertebrate paleontologist named Elmer Riggs. He was appointed shortly after the Museum opened and started its vertebrate paleontology collections. 

Riggs collected dinosaurs from the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods in Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, and Alberta, Canada. He led many expeditions to the western United States in search of fossil mammals. Known for discovering and naming the holotype specimen of Brachiosaurus (a cast of which now stands outside the museum), Riggs’s legacy also includes the impressive collection of Cenozoic mammals he brought to the museum from Bolivia and Argentina.

Today, Field Museum paleontologists conduct leading-edge research on early mammal relatives, marine reptiles, ancient turtles, fossil fishes, cryptic invertebrates, and of course, dinosaurs.

In 2000, SUE, the largest T. rex specimen ever discovered, was unveiled to an adoring public that shares our passion for paleontology.

A member of an early Field Museum expedition led by Elmer Riggs, the museum’s first paleontologist, was photographed next to the humerus of a Brachiosaurus altithorax. On that expedition to a site near Grand Junction, CO, the team discovered the holotype of Brachiosaurus, which Riggs named and described.

Elmer Riggs

On May 17, 2000, SUE was unveiled in Stanley Field Hall. This T. rex, the largest and most complete skeleton of its kind, is named for Sue Hendrickson, who discovered it in 1990 in South Dakota. After the museum purchased SUE, staffers spent more than 30,000 hours preparing the skeleton (plus another 20,000 hours building the exhibit). In 2018, SUE was moved from Stanley Field Hall to a private suite in the Griffin Halls of Evolving Planet

John Weinstein

Zoology 

Daniel Giraud Elliot, the Museum’s first zoology curator, and chief taxidermist Carl Akeley embarked on an expedition to Somalia in 1896, bringing back the first of our extensive African bird and mammal holdings. 

The meticulously created collection of taxidermied specimens at the Field would not be what it is without the contributions of Akeley, a taxidermist, naturalist, sculptor, writer, and inventor. He made two expeditions to Africa for the Museum to collect specimens that could educate the public about the continent’s vanishing wildlife. His mounts of two fighting African elephants still tower over visitors in Stanley Field Hall. 

Akeley’s 1902 series of dioramas depicting the white-tailed deer in spring, summer, fall, and winter, known as the Four Seasons, set the standard for taxidermy and museum habitat groups for decades to come. Akeley's pioneering techniques, forward thinking, and adventurous nature have inspired many scientists, and his legacy lives on in many dioramas still in our halls today.

The 1920s brought the heyday of zoological collecting, with expeditions to Africa, South America, and the Pacific. Research continued through the Great Depression into the postwar years, led by a who’s who of American zoologists: herpetologist Karl P. Schmidt, ornithologists Emmet Blake and Austin Rand, mammalogist Dwight Davis, and primate expert Philip Hershkovitz—all of whom were Field Museum curators.

From this foundation, the Museum became a recognized force in zoological research. Today, our scientists conduct fieldwork that might be familiar to Carl Akeley, but they also use cutting-edge technology to unlock the secrets of animal ecology and evolution. 

Carl Akeley’s fighting African elephants, shown here in their first location at the Field Columbian Museum in Jackson Park, remain on exhibit today, in the museum’s Stanley Field Hall. 

Charles Carpenter

Carl Akeley created four dioramas of Virginia deer in their natural habitat in summer (pictured here), autumn, winter, and spring. Known as the Four Seasons, the dioramas were purchased by the Field Museum and have been on display since 1902.

Charles Carpenter

Conservation

Within days of the Museum’s founding, botanists and zoologists began conducting inventories of global tropical diversity, charting unexplored regions, and compiling data that would inform future conservation work. Writing from his 1896 expedition to Somalia, Daniel Giraud Elliot sounded the alarm about rapidly vanishing wildlife and emphasized the importance of the Museum’s role in documenting it. 

Although active conservation efforts were some years off, the Field’s interest in the issue remained a constant in its scientific endeavors. The environmental movement of the 1960s and ’70s increased the visibility and urgency of conservation, and the Field expanded its role in both local and international conservation efforts. 

A turning point came during our centennial celebration in 1994. It started with a small group of researchers, spearheaded by Debra Moskovits, who has served on the Museum’s staff since 1985. The team’s mission: translate the Field Museum’s rigorous science into direct action for conservation and cultural understanding. 

The team traveled to South America to perform the Museum’s first of many rapid biological inventories, expeditions designed to document natural areas and the species that live there, and make recommendations for conservation efforts. These efforts so far have led to the protection of 33 million acres of forests and waters—and the formation of the Keller Science Action Center.

Since its establishment, the center has focused on the Chicago region and the high-biodiversity Andean foothills and Amazon forests of Ecuador, Peru, Colombia, and Bolivia. In Chicago, researchers engage communities and youth in environmental restoration and stewardship. In the Amazon, rapid inventory teams share their findings with local leaders and issue formal scientific reports that can inform future conservation efforts. The return on investment has been significant: for every $1 invested in rapid inventories, we’ve helped protect five acres of precious wilderness.

A woman smiles as she stands next to a stream and looks at a large rock. She is in the jungle, surrounded by trees, vines, and bright green leaves.

Conservation ecologist Corine Vriesendorp in Colombia on Rapid Inventory 29, a trip to document rare and unknown species of plants and animals.

Álvaro del Campo

The next chapter of our history

Just like life on Earth itself, the Museum is always evolving. Every day, our scientists and researchers are out exploring the world, from deserts to  jungles to cities.

We’re always working to discover new things: species to study, mysteries to solve, problems to tackle, challenges to ponder. Past, present, and future, our work has always been driven by a love for our planet—and the 7.5 billion people who call it home.

Shedd Aquarium and Adler Planetarium opened in 1930, joining the Field on Chicago’s lakefront south of Grant Park. In 1998, the “Museum Campus” was officially completed after crews removed the roadways that bisected the campus and created walkable areas of green space that visitors enjoy now.

Ron Testa

In 2018—our 125th anniversary year—we introduced a new look. Our brand highlights the scientific work we’ve done throughout our history and the discoveries we’re making every day for Earth’s future.

Lucy Hewett