Origins of the Berkeley Natural History Museums

Annie Alexander
Annie Alexander portrait

The origins of the Berkeley Natural History Museums date to the period between 1880 and 1920, a time when natural history and the study of humanity were intimately linked. Natural scientists such as William Henry Holmes and John Wesley Powell, members of both the early U.S. Geological Survey and the Bureau of American Ethnology, embodied this connection between natural history and the study of humankind. It was also a time of tremendous change in American society and in science, and coincided with the founding of the western states and the University of California.

Changing of the guard

The collections began at a time when natural history and anthropology studies were passing from the hands of committed amateurs to professionals trained in the scientific method. Their training demanded meticulous record keeping and high standards for the collection and analysis of specimens. These early field workers were acutely aware of the  disappearing landscape and changing land use.  There was a keen awareness that advances in technology and agriculture were irreversibly altering the landscape, and the humans who lived there for thousands of years. Time was of the essence in recording and preserving knowledge of the West’s natural history. Read more about the Grinnell Resurvey Project which rely on the field notes and maps of these original surveyors to revisit sites to understand biotic changes of the last century. Visit each of the museums’ websites to learn more about their individual histories.

Increasing understanding of evolution

Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, Charles Lyell’s interpretations of Earth’s geologic history and Hugo De Vries’ ideas on mutation theory gained wide acceptance, and gave new importance to the study of fossils. Species were now seen as a link in the chain of life going back millions of years. Scientists recognized that paleontology is a key to deciphering how organisms arose, flourished, diversified, and disappeared, and that it held clues to changes in Earth’s climate, topography, flora and fauna.

California Thrasher (Toxostoma redivivum) by Ron Wolf

Development of ecology

Ecology, the study of how organisms interact with their physical and biological environment, was also taking shape during this period. An understanding of ecology would help explain the selective pressures that could cause certain populations of a species to begin differentiating from their counterparts. Paleontologists could also begin to reconstruct the community dynamics of Devonian-age seas and Carboniferous forests. Berkeley’s natural historians, such as Joseph Grinnell who introduced the concept of the ecological niche, played important roles in the development of ecological theory.

The birth of Americanist anthropology

American anthropology became organized in 1879 with the founding of the Bureau of American Ethnology at the Smithsonian. In the succeeding decades, the Bureau sponsored extensive fieldwork and collecting throughout the West. Although he opposed its evolutionary agenda, Columbia University professor Franz Boas continued its mission to survey and research the native peoples of the continent. Alfred Kroeber, his first Columbia doctoral student, extended his mentor’s mission to California in 1901 when he was hired as professor and curator in the new anthropology museum and department. Kroeber and his anthropological colleagues were united in their goal to document and reconstruct the historical development of American Indian cultures.