The MCZ at 150

On the enduring value of natural history museums and the study of life's species

See our coverage of the hall renovation: "A Gallery Glows Again," November-December 2009

By 1856, Swiss naturalist and Harvard professor Louis Agassiz had amassed all the necessities for a new museum on campus. The funds had been charmed out of the coffers of wealthy Bostonians. The collections, thousands upon thousands of animal specimens, had been chosen from around the world. The building, a robust brick structure on Oxford Street, was being planned. Only the name was lacking. What to call one of the first natural history museums in the United States, an institution that would, Agassiz hoped, rival the great animal halls of Europe? “The Natural History Museum” already sounded antiquated to Agassiz’s Victorian ears; “The Museum of Comparative Zoology, Embryology, and Paleontology” too long. When Agassiz dedicated the building three years later, he declared it “The Museum of Comparative Zoology,” a name, he wrote, that would “prevail for our science as it grows.”

The science has certainly grown. DNA and molecular biology now trump morphology in the classification of animals. Biodiversity and its endangerment, concepts unrecognizable to Agassiz, have revolutionized the field. But the MCZ itself, now celebrating its 150th anniversary, has lost none of its relevance. “Agassiz was thinking of a museum where people would do the most synthetic and integrative research, considering all kinds of characteristics of animals,” said James Hanken, professor of biology and Agassiz professor of zoology, the museum’s current director, on October 15, in the first of three commemorative lectures. “This vision…has stayed with the museum and underlies a lot of its success.” As the institution moves forward, it hopes to share this vision as it educates. 


From its beginning, the MCZ has been a leader in natural history, so learning its history is a lot like listening to a condensed account of the field as a whole. Hanken likes to stress what an unlikely candidate Agassiz was as the museum’s founder. An accomplished geologist, he is credited with the discovery of the ice ages; his treatises on natural history pushed classification far beyond the work of his peers. But he was also a staunch creationist. Even as he studied the relationships among animals and organized these relationships in a larger system, he remained bound to the notion that each species was fundamentally “a thought of God.” When Darwin published his On the Origin of Species in 1859 (the very year of the museum’s founding), Agassiz declared the book “truly monstrous.”

Agassiz went to great lengths to deny the idea that species could mutate, but as Darwin’s theories gained prominence, his efforts became more and more forlorn. In 1865, he organized a grand expedition to the Brazilian Amazon, ostensibly to discover and collect more species, but for Agassiz, it was a final attempt to prove himself right. “The combination of animals on this continent,” he wrote, “will give me the means of showing that the transmutation theory is wholly without foundation in facts.” The trip was a success for the museum’s collections: the expedition found 2,200 species--2,000 of them new to science. But it did not restore Agassiz’s reputation. (He was not the only disappointed expedition member. Among the students accompanying him was the young William James, who wrote of the trip, “If there is any thing I hate it is collecting. It is not suited to my genius at all.”)        

It’s ironic then, Hanken pointed out, that Agassiz’s museum would play such an important role in educating the public about the evolution and diversity of life. In fact, British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace remarked, upon visiting the MCZ in 1887: “It is surely an anomaly that the naturalist who was most opposed to the theory of evolution should be the first to arrange his museum in such a way as to best illustrate that theory.”


After Hanken provided the history of the MCZ, the lectures turned to the role of natural history museums as public institutions in an age of environmental uncertainty. In the second lecture, on October 27, Cristián Samper, Ph.D. ’92, director of the National Museum of Natural History (part of the Smithsonian Institution), surveyed the development of natural history museums in society. That story itself is an evolutionary tale, he explained. From cabinets of curiosities—small, private, idiosyncratic assortments of objects—to the modern museum—where hands-on interaction engages the visitor directly with the collection—there’s been a decided shift of focus outward, from content to audience. Collecting and research form a strong backbone, but an institution does not become a successful museum unless it reels in a specimen much more difficult to capture: the visitor.  Though museums are hubs of research and scientific thought, Samper said, they must spread their findings and collections before a wide public. Museums bring nature to the visitor who has never spent much time outdoors; they share the latest findings with those outside the scientific community. They educate and inform. The Smithsonian, he noted, has followed that same path to a viewer-based experience. Once a single building, it was thought large enough to contain “all knowledge” for study and show. Today in Washington, D.C., Samper noted proudly, “Everything between the Capitol and the White House, the entire National Mall, is lined with museums.” And as collections move to the Internet in digital form, they reach a wider audience and foster further research.


Environmental concerns make this educational aspect all the more pressing, stressed Michael Novacek, senior vice president and provost of the American Museum of Natural History, on November 5 in the third lecture of the series. By the middle of this century, he predicted, we may lose between 30 percent and 50 percent of all existing species. Fossil records point to five major extinctions over the course of the earth’s history, resulting from cataclysmic events like global cooling or volcanic activity. What we see now may be the sixth major extinction—an ecological event as catastrophic as the end of the dinosaurs. This wave of extinction is “not normal” and is irreversible, Novacek said: ecosystems can recover, but “the loss of a species is forever.”   

Like Hanken and Samper, Novacek stressed that researchers and the museums that house them must highlight the relevance of their work. “Scientific realities are not generally understood,” he pointed out. The public, for example, has a tendency to decouple climate change and biodiversity loss, so scientists must share their findings even as they seek to understand the intricacies of the natural world. “Science and scientific discoveries can’t exist in a vacuum,” he asserted. It’s a lesson Darwin himself understood well—On the Origin of Species was an instant bestseller. 


About 175,000 people pass through the MCZ each year: schoolchildren, Harvard students, and visitors who come to wander about the fossils and beetles. The collections they view represent less than one one-hundredth of a percent of the museum’s holdings (the other 21 million specimens sit in storerooms or laboratories), but the carefully curated rooms of frog bodies and sea creatures bring visitors face to face with a wide range of subjects for study.

In the Great Mammal Hall, where light from Oxford Street illuminates the staid bodies of giraffes and takins, viewers walk through decades of such research. Constructed in 1872, the Hall was renovated for this anniversary: a group of undergraduates, led by Loeb associate professor of the natural sciences Hopi Hoekstra, reevaluated the taxonomy of the animals and arranged them accordingly. Little of the Victorian structure of the room, one of the museum’s early public displays, has changed. The layout feels antiquated, old-fashioned almost, with large glass cases dotted across the wood floor. One holds perissodactyls (grazing mammals with an uneven number of toes, like tapirs), another the body of a vicuña (a long-necked South American creature related to the llama). But the room, brightened with white paint, is warm and open—not stuffy. Century-old cases now contain the most recent advances. The juxtaposition of old and new science illustrates the full spectrum of the field’s growth. The orders and phyla, so clearly arranged and delineated, give off a powerful impression: this is a world that can be known by man.

The renovation has brought a significant addition. Round red stickers decorate some of the labels: “Threatened,” “Extinct.” “We hope that in visiting, people will start to appreciate these animals that they may not have even known about,” said Hoekstra. “You can’t conserve what you don’t know.”


At the end of the lecture series, I asked James Hanken if “museum” is really the right term for what happens at the MCZ. If the research is so pertinent, is it really fair to cloak it in a title that suggests the past?

That has “come up in the field,” said Hanken. To many, the name doesn’t convey what museums are really about—teaching and research. “We must constantly educate, to tell people what a museum is for,” he continued.

But the MCZ has no choice: the name is written in the charter. And Hanken is not dismayed. “You have to remember,” he said, “the people who have worked in this building are some of the most famous scientists of all time. We occupy a special position because of the impact of this museum in its field…It shall always be called the Museum of Comparative Zoology. That is the original name and that is something we are very proud of.”

Madeleine Schwartz '12 is a Harvard Magazine correspondent.

Read more articles by: Madeleine Schwartz

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