History of the Beneski Museum of Natural History

The origins of the Beneski Museum of Natural History date back to the very earliest days of Amherst College. The College itself began in 1821 as a teaching institution primarily for missionaries that would be stationed worldwide. From the beginning, science was a vital part of the curriculum. You can read about the history of the geology department here.

Perhaps the most significant event to affect scientific study and research at Amherst College was the addition of Edward Hitchcock as Professor of Chemistry and Natural History in 1825. Hitchcock had wide-ranging interests, a keen sense of scientific investigation and the dynamic energy to execute numerous scientific investigations and ensuing publications. He also encouraged alumni to send back scientific specimens from all over the world and himself collected geologic and fossil specimens from local sites. One of these collections, the Hitchcock Ichnology Collection (ichnology is the study of tracks and traces), today continues to be one of the largest and most studied fossil track collections.

Other key people who joined the faculty of Amherst College in the 19th century, further expanding science's role at Amherst College, included Charles Upham Shepard (responsible for the first mineral collection) and Benjamin K. Emerson. In the 20th century, Frederik Brewster Loomis, and later Albert E. Wood, both professors of biology, greatly expanded the scientific collections, particularly the vertebrate fossils, through field expeditions in numerous North and South American localities.

The Beneski Museum is the present home of natural history collections at Amherst College. Throughout the years, as collections were created and expanded, they were housed and displayed in several campus buildings. The first museum, the Octagon, was built in 1848. As Hitchcock's influence and collections expanded, another building the Appleton Cabinet, was constructed in 1855, dedicated solely to his ichnology collection and to the numerous zoological specimens that were being sent back by alumni. These collections were key parts of the scientific curricula in Amherst's classrooms. Today, the Beneski Museum's collections reflect the historical journey of scientific inquiry at Amherst College and of western culture in general derived from expeditions, donations and exchanges, and have been acquired throughout the past 180 years of Amherst College.

The Beneski Museum of Natural History curates, displays, and interprets those collections for all visitors.