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While the Harvard Museum of Natural History is a relatively new institution, its roots and the collections of its parent museums reach back to the 19th century. These collections number about 21 million specimens—only a small fraction are on display in the HMNH galleries.

History of the Oxford Street Museums

The Museum of Comparative Zoology was founded in 1859 through the efforts of Louis Agassiz, the Swiss zoologist who coined the term “Ice Age.” Agassiz championed the need for extensive comparative collections for teaching and research.  The result is one of the most extensive holdings of scientifically described material of tremendous geographical range and historical significance.  Significant collections not on display at the Harvard Museum of Natural History include the Louis Agassiz and A.S. Romer Collections of Fossil Fish, Louis Agassiz’ personal collections of arachnids, the Collection of North American Beetles, Fossilized Insects in Amber, Fresh Water and Marine Mollusks and Shells, Extinct and Vanishing Birds of the World, pheasants once owned by George Washington, and Birds from the Lewis and Clark Expedition.  These biological collections continue to grow and have continued relevance as researchers extract DNA from preserved specimens to document biodiversity, both past (and sometimes extinct) and present.

The Harvard University Herbaria was founded in 1858 by Asa Gray and was originally called the Museum of Vegetable Products. First organized around a nucleus of materials donated by Sir William Hooker, the Director of the Royal Botanic Garden at Kew, the museum focused on the study of economic botany (“useful plants”). In 1886, George Lincoln Goodale, then the director of the museum, commissioned the glass artisans Leopold Blaschka and his son, Rudolf to create the now world-renowned Ware collection of Blaschka Glass Models of Plants, also known as “The Glass Flowers.” Originally intended to serve as a teaching collection, these models are renowned for their artistic quality as well as their botanical accuracy. In 1890, the building now housing these collections was completed. Since then, the collections of products, medicinal plants, artifacts, archaeological materials, pollen and photos have increased. The Herbarium also possesses large collections of medicinal plants, artifacts, archaeological materials, pollen, and photos. The extensive paleobotany collections, especially Precambrian material containing early life forms, continue to be enlarged through faculty and student work. Although it came to the museum complex later than the Museum of Comparative Zoology, the Mineralogical and Geological Museum is actually the oldest collection housed in the Oxford Street complex. Founded in 1784 by Benjamin Waterhouse, this museum’s teaching and display collections were transformed into a research collection in 1891 and 1901 at the bequest of A. F. Holden. The Mineralogical and Geological Museum’s collection now ranks among the world’s finest due to its very broad representation, wealth of rare species, large number of specimens described in the scientific literature, and the quality of the display specimens.

The Oxford Street complex also includes a fourth museum, the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnography. Although the Peabody and HMNH are administered separately, visitors may explore both museums once they enter the complex.