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Picturing the Museum

Visual display of natural science has been a cornerstone of the mission of the American Museum of Natural History since its inception.


Albert Bickmore, acknowledged as the founder of the American Museum of Natural History, began offering free lectures in science education for New York City public school teachers in the early 1880s. He illustrated these lectures with hand colored lantern slides reproduced from the growing collection of photographs created and collected by the Museum staff. Bickmore’s lectures were so successful that a new and larger theater was constructed to hold the crowds who came to the Museum to attend the events.


In addition to offering science education within the Museum, the Museum began to offer materials and programming to the city.  To expand the Museum’s educational mission beyond its walls, a lantern slide lending library was created which eventually evolved into Natural Science Study Collections that were delivered to schools by the Museum. The Museum provided slides, delivered specimens and, later, model dioramas accompanied by lectures prepared by the Museum’s educational and scientific staff.

Exhibitions within the Museum building grew from the simple rows of specimen cabinets to more sophisticated representations of the natural world, both living and extinct. Fossil reconstructions of dinosaur and other paleontological specimens were and continue to be a mainstay of the Museum’s halls. The natural history dioramas in Carl Akeley’s Hall of African Mammals are considered masterpieces of the genre. Displays like the Haida canoe and the blue whale have formed palpable memories for generations of visitors. Special exhibitions such as Lindbergh’s plane and the Tuberculosis Exhibition brought timely and pertinent issues to the public.


Solidly based on the Museum's scientific exploration and research, AMNH educators, librarians and exhibition specialists have labored to make the knowledge and wonder of the natural world available to the public. Their efforts and those of their successors were, in turn, documented by museum staff and other photographers. The Museum’s Research Library now manages the historical photographs and is following in the tradition of the lantern slide lending library and school study collections to make the Museum’s history and visual resources widely available for the people, for science, and for education.


This online exhibit, a small sampling from the almost 1000 images in the Picturing the Museum collection, part of the Library’s larger Photographic Collection, may be explored by selecting the topic menu to the right: Dioramas, Exhibition, Exhibition Preparation, and Education.  The Museum Research Library’s Digital Special Collections showcases thousands of images from its collections in a variety of formats on a rich variety of natural history subjects. To see other collections featured in Digital Special Collections, see the menus to the top and left.  Visitors may browse through images by collection, subject, expedition, photographer, and other resources, depending on the collection.  More photos are added every day.


The American Museum of Natural History’s digital imaging project "Picturing the Museum: Education and Exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History" was supported in part by funds from the Metropolitan New York Library Council (METRO) through the New York State Regional Bibliographic Databases Program. The original site may be found at


This exhibit was curated by the AMNH Research Library's Visual Resources Librarian, Stacy J. Schiff.