August/September 1979 | Volume 30, Issue 5
So read a welcoming sign over the door of Charles Willson Peale’s great ill-fated museum
In the summer of 1786, an advertisement heralding the appearance of a revolutionary new institution appeared in the Pennsylvania Packet: “ MR. PEALE , ever desirous to please and entertain the Public, will make a part of his House a Repository for Natural Curiosities—The Public he hopes will thereby be gratified in the sight of many of the Wonderful Works of Nature which are now closeted but seldom seen. The several articles will be classed and arranged according to their several species; and for greater ease to the Curious, on each piece will be inscribed the place from whence it came, and the name of the Donor, unless forbid, with such other information as may be necessary.…”
Portrait painter, soldier, politician, Charles Willson Peale had been living for two years with this idea, conceived in the upsurge of patriotic fervor which followed the Revolutionary War. Natural history was a new science. It promised a full understanding of oneself, one’s country, and the world. Excitingly presented, it would attract crowds and foster a rebirth of civilization in free America. This was the first museum of science with a program of popular education, and not until the founding of the American Museum of Natural History in 1869 would we have another like it—”a school of useful knowledge,” in Peale’s words, “to amuse and in the same moment to instruct the adult as well as the youth of each sex and age.”
Peale had set out, at age forty-five, “to bring into one view a world in miniature,” the commonplace as well as the rare, confidently expecting from the first that his work would become the United States National Museum. Plants, animals, and birds would be gathered, properly labeled, and displayed in one great, implausibly peaceable kingdom. In his first museum stuffed tigers stood beside deer on plaster mountainsides that rose above a glass pond thickly inhabited by fish, reptiles, and aquatic birds. In an age beginning to be fascinated by every aspect of science, this was a terrific attraction. People came by the hundreds, and few could refrain from handling the exhibits even after being warned that the birds were “covered with arsenic poison.” Soon Peale moved the birds to glass-fronted cases where they stood before his own painted backdrops—the first attempt at showing wildlife in its natural habitats.
The museum started to expand almost as soon as it opened. Benjamin Franklin contributed his Angora cat, sportsmen brought in birds they’d shot, and Peale created all the races of mankind in wax, as well as a wax self-portrait of himself sketching, so lifelike that even friends tiptoed past it to keep from disturbing him. Before long, Peale was corresponding with European naturalists and swapping specimens with museums in Paris, London, and Stockholm.
The French consulate in Baltimore shipped Peale sixty-three young vipers; an Englishman sent lava from Vesuvius; Stephen Decatur contributed a live iguana; William Temple Franklin donated “likenesses of the King and Queen of France, executed on white sattin, and each produced by a single spark of electricity”; predictably, Indian artifacts sleeted in throughout the institution’s existence; from the South Seas came a native war cap and cloak; from the Orient came a minuscule pair of shoes made for the bound feet of a Chinese lady. Every now and then an oddity appeared which gave Peale pause. He brooded over whether a live five-legged cow with six feet and two tails was suitable to the dignity of his enterprise, but finally installed it in his yard, where it lived for a number of years, faithfully giving milk.
By the fall of 1794, the collections had become so vast that Peale had to move them to Philosophical Hall, the first of several migrations forced by his tireless acquisitiveness. “My museum is creeping on,” he wrote, “—yet it is like rolling a heavy stone up a steep sandy hill, having no funds to support it but of my own earning.” For the rest of his career he worked to secure an endowment that would permit him to preserve the museum on the scale—and with the integrity—that he envisioned. Time after time he petitioned Congress, always in vain. Even after he retired, he would go campaigning for funds; once, hoping to pass a bill through the state legislature, he went so far as to carve an artificial hand for a back-country member. But the money never came.
Peale did not live to see the disintegration of his lofty enterprise into a scattering of gimcrack attractions. His exhibits were dispersed, but his idea survived: a showcase of actual specimens systematically arranged and documented that would serve as a potent instrument of popular education. When institutions with the ample endowment which Peale had struggled through the years to obtain finally did come into being, they took the form of his precedent.
During its long life, many exhibits in Peale’s museum stirred great public interest (some of them are shown in the portfolio on the following pages). But none caused greater excitement than the mastodon skeleton which Peale had pulled from a bog in upstate New York. Nor did any single exhibit better reflect the zeal and ingenuity with which Peale built his museum.
The story of this extraordinary find begins on page 16, following our pictorial tour of the collections. It is drawn from Charles Coleman Seller’s delightful book Mr. Peale’s Museum , soon to be published by W. W. Norton and the Barra Foundation. A descendant of Charles Willson Peale, Sellers won the 1969 Bancroft Prize in History for his definitive biography of the man.