At the time of the AIB’s construction, the concept of a museum as a place of education and outreach for the general public was fairly new; until that point, collections were privately held by wealthy citizens, and not available to view by the public. The Museum of Comparative Zoology and the British Museum are two examples of the evolving museum concept in the 19th century. Both museums had an influence on the development of the AIB.
The Museum of Comparative Zoology
The Museum of Comparative Zoology was founded in 1859 by naturalist Louis Agassiz (1807–1873) at Harvard College in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Agassiz’s requirements were simple: he needed a fireproof building with rooms in which to work, to teach, and to display collections. One of Agassiz’s students and assistants, Charles Frederic Girard, came to Washington, D.C. in 1850 to work at the Smithsonian with Spencer Baird. Agassiz himself was appointed to the Smithsonian’s Board of Regents in 1863.
The British Museum
The British Museum is one of the world’s foremost museum complexes; it’s also one of the oldest. Opened to the public in 1759 in London, the Museum’s natural history collections included zoological, geological, and botanical specimens.
In 1860 the Trustees of the British Museum, faced with overcrowding, decided to move the Natural History Collection to a separate building. The site of the London International Exposition of 1862 was selected for this new museum. Construction was eventually completed in 1880, and the museum was partially opened to the public in 1881 – the same year that the Smithsonian’s new National Museum Building opened its doors.