Journal Article

From the Pacific to the Patent Office: The US Exploring Expedition and the origins of America's first national museum

Antony Adler

in Journal of the History of Collections

Volume 23, issue 1, pages 49-74
Published in print May 2011 | ISSN: 0954-6650
Published online October 2010 | e-ISSN: 1477-8564 | DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/jhc/fhq002
From the Pacific to the Patent Office: The US Exploring Expedition and the origins of America's first national museum

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The first American museum to house national collections funded by government appropriation was the Patent Office Museum in Washington, DC. Two-thirds of the display cases in the central gallery housed objects from the first government-funded, scientific expedition into the Pacific, the United States Exploring Expedition (1838-42). This paper examines the development of the Patent Office Museum and the display of expedition collections by following the careers of the naturalist Titian Ramsay Peale and expedition commander Charles Wilkes. By focusing on the participation of Peale and Wilkes as collectors, and on their subsequent efforts to design and mount the collections in the Patent Office, two distinct sub-cultures of nineteenth-century American science are examined: gentlemen naturalists linked to private museums or voluntary associations on the one hand and to political and military advocates of government-supported science on the other. The conflict and cooperation between these two cultures during the expedition are examined and the founding phase of the Patent Office Museum is documented.

Journal Article.  20172 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: Exhibition Catalogues and Specific Collections ; History of Art ; Social and Cultural History

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