Founders & Advocates
The Field Museum was founded at a time of cultural philanthropy during the 1880s and 1890s, when Chicago businessmen and scientists alike were competing with their peers on the East Coast. The World's Colombian Exposition was a way to prove to New England that Chicago was just as fine a city and cultural center as Washington D.C. or Boston. The efforts of these men created the most successful World's Fair to date and culminated in The Field Museum of Natural History.
Professor Frederick Ward Putnam, then curator of the Peabody Museum at Harvard, was involved with the World's Colombian Exposition from the start was and the first to call for a museum to be created from the collections at the Exposition. He is often considered the founder of the museum. Putnam was the head of the Department of Ethnology at the Exposition and responsible for collecting and organizing “rare human exotic” exhibits. However, he was determined to make his exhibits a display of anthropological artifacts instead of a "cabinet of curiosities" and devised a plan for an exhibition called “A Panorama of History of the Human Race in the New World.” The plan contained his ideas for a permanent museum and the details as to how the museum would function. Putnam published his opinions in the Chicago Tribune on May 31, 1890 and spoke in front of local bodies on the subject.
"Not to take advantage of the golden opportunity now offered …would simply be choosing to remain in the darkness of ignorance when one of the brightest lights for culture is within reach” (Bardoe, 2011)
In September, 1890, he presented this plan to the Committee on Permanent Organization, who were enthusiastic but short of funds. Putnam then took his plan to the Commercial Club of Chicago on November 28, 1891, calling on Chicago’s businessmen to provide the support that was needed to create a great public museum. It was at this meeting that Putnam gained the interest of Edward E. Ayer, the man who pushed the hardest for the museum. From 1893 to 1894 Putnam guided the direction and the scope of the museum, but often clashed with the Chicago business elite who provided the financial backing and had their own idea for the purposes of the museum. Putnam moved on from the Field Museum and went on to organize the American Museum of Natural History's Anthropolgy Department from 1894 to 1903 and the University of California's Anthropology Department from 1903 to 1909.
“To this great city is now offered an exceptional opportunity of establishing a grand museum of natural history, as a permanent result of the world’s Colombian Exposition. Surely this opportunity must not be lost. Arrangements should be made without delay to thus add the culture of the natural sciences to the present attractions and importance to the city…” (Boyer, 1993)
Few men worked harder than Edward E. Ayer to establish The Field Museum. A collector of American Indian artifacts and Chicago businessman who took great pride in the city where he had made his fortune, Ayer was determined to secure the museum’s future. To accomplish this, he knew he had to get the wealthiest man in Chicago to support the venture: Marshall Field. Even though Field was present at the same meeting of the Commercial Club of Chicago where a Harvard professor named Putnam gave a moving speech as to the necessity of a museum, Field didn’t show the same interest as Ayer and quickly forgot about the idea. After weeks of persuasion and with the Exposition coming to a close, Field still wasn’t taking the bait. Not until a dramatic meeting that was held in Field’s office and later recounted in The Life of Edward Ayer was Field swayed.
“You want to talk to me about that darned museum.”
“Yes,” I admitted.
“How much time do you want?”
“If I can’t convince you out of a million dollars in fifteen minutes, I’m no good, nor you either.”
He got up, closed the door, came back and said. “Fire ahead.”
“Marshall Field, how many men or women twenty-five years or younger know that A. T. Stewart ever lived?”
“Not one,” he replied.
I continued. “Marshall Field, he was a greater merchant than you, or Claflin or Wanamaker, because he originated and worked out the scheme that made you all rich; and he is forgotten in twenty-five years. Now, Marshall Field, you can sell dry goods until Hell freezes over; you can sell it on ice until that melts; and in twenty-five years you will be just the figure A.T. Stewart is – absolutely forgotten. You have an opportunity here that has been vouchsafed to very few people on the earth. From the point of view of natural history, you have the privilege of being the educational host of the untold millions of people who will follow us in the Mississippi Valley…”
I talked fast and steady. Finally, he took out his watch and said, “You have been here forty-five minutes – you get out of here.” (Boyer, 1993)
Field promised to tour the Exposition the next day with Ayer and ended up writing a check for one million dollars. Establishing a museum was now a reality. Ayer also ended up donating his extensive collection of Native American artifacts and purchased the Museum's original 250 piece collection of Egyptian artifacts in 1894. For information on the Edward E. Ayer collection, click here. He eventually became the first President of The Field Museum from 1894 to 1898, until his successor, Harlow Higinbotham, took over the position.
Harlow Higinbotham was president of the World's Colombian Exposition and then held the same position at the Field Colombian Museum from 1898 to 1908. He was instrumental in the success of both the Exposition and The Field Museum. Higinbotham’s commitment to civic duty and leadership abilities gained him the position of President of the Exposition. He traveled the world, seeking the participation of other countries and encouraging the creation of a great museum to commemorate the fair. He was also responsible for preventing the financial failure of the Exposition through his skills for business organization, finance and credit. Higinbotham made several large contributions to the Field Museum. He made the second-largest individual donation to the Museum and purchased several collections from the Exposition, including the George Frederick Kunz gemology and mineralogy library and Tiffany gems. Higinbotham served first as Chairman of the Executive Committee and then succeeded Ayer as President of the Museum. During his presidency, he shaped the plans for the Museum’s new location and building, until his death in 1919.
Frederick J.V. Skiff was the first Director of The Field Museum. He played an important role in the transition of many collections and exhibits from the World's Colombian Exposition to the Field Colombian Museum. During the Exposition he was Chief of the Department of Mines, Mining and Metallurgy. When the plans for establishing the museum began to take shape, Skiff assembled materials under his jurisdiction from the exposition. Skiff was recognized for his effective administration of his department during the Exposition, and served as temporary director during the organization of the Museum and eventually was made permanent director, serving from 1894 to 1921. In 1905, when the Field Colombian Museum became the Field Museum of Natural History, Director Skiff provided the explanation:
“Why do we designate the scope of the Museum in its title? In the first place, we think it is fair to the world, we think it is fair to the uniformed and thoughtless stranger within our gates, we think it fair to the many unwise and unthinking residents of Chicago to notify them in this way that The Field Museum is not an art gallery, a collection of war relics, a freak show or a place of leisure or recreation, but that it is a serious institution for instruction in the natural sciences.” (Brinkman, 2009)
Undeniably one of the most important men in Museum history, Marshall Field made the famous $1,000,000 donation that saved the museum from remaining a mere fantasy in the minds of many Chicagoans. Field was one of the wealthiest and most important citizens in Chicago. Apart from his philanthropy, Field was the head of his company Marshall Field & Co. Though initially unreceptive to the idea of the museum, he was eventually convinced by Edward E. Ayer to invest. Field’s involvement went beyond his initial endowment. Like many of his colleagues, Field knew the museum needed a new location when the original Palace of Fine Arts was on the brink of crumbling. He liked the Beaux Arts style of the Exposition and therefore hired the architecture firm that designed the Exposition, Burnham & Company. Field approved of the plans before the construction began and upon his death donated $8,000,000 to the Museum, which was used to fund the new building project.