The Florida Museum of Natural History (formerly known as the Florida State Museum) got its start when Frank Pickel, a professor of natural science at Florida Agricultural College in Lake City, purchased research collections of minerals, fossils and human anatomy models as aids in teaching biology and agricultural sciences. The initial collections grew steadily with donations from other professors.
When the Florida Agricultural College was abolished in 1905 the Museum became a part of the newly created University of Florida, and was moved to Gainesville in 1906. The collections expanded in size and scope and were displayed for some time in a dormitory, Thomas Hall. Recognizing the significance of the growing research collections and teaching exhibits, the university found a new home for the Museum in the basement of the sciences building, Flint Hall.
Thompson H. Van Hyning, director of the Iowa State Museum during the preceding 10 years, was appointed the Museum’s first director and ran the Museum virtually unassisted for 29 years.
Chapter 240.515 of the Florida Statutes was enacted which formally established the Florida State Museum at the University of Florida. (The statutes were renumbered in 2000 so this statute is now FS §1004.56.)
By the early 1930s, the Museum had acquired nearly half a million specimens and was running out of space. The Museum’s exhibits were moved and in 1939 opened to the public in the Seagle Building located in downtown Gainesville, where they remained for more than 30 years. Most of the collections remained in Flint Hall where they would be available to the faculty and students of the Department of Biology, which was housed in the building at that time. The collections continued to grow and space became so critical that by the mid-1960s all the zoological collections were transferred to the Seagle Building.
Arnold Grobman became Museum director and hired the first full-time faculty to curate the collections and interpret them to the public.
The Museum developed its first traveling exhibit — a panoramic survey of Florida history beginning with the state’s earliest inhabitants.
Joshua C. “J.C.” Dickinson, Jr. was appointed Museum director. Under his leadership, Museum research and education experienced explosive growth, particularly in curatorial staff and in the vertebrate systematics collections. The Seagle Building became increasingly cramped and the Museum again needed more space for the research collections and exhibits. Dickinson spearheaded a drive for a new building.
Construction began on a new Museum building on the University of Florida campus with a $1.1 million grant from the National Science Foundation and matching funds from private donors and state and local governments.
Construction on the new building, Dickinson Hall, was completed in the fall, and the research collections were moved back onto the UF campus. The public exhibits and education programs occupied the top floor of Dickinson Hall, which was formally dedicated in September 1971.
F. Wayne King became director and oversaw a period of programmatic expansion. Curatorial oversight of the UF Herbarium was transferred from the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences to the Museum, and the number of faculty in the Museum departments of Anthropology and Interpretation increased. The Museum received major collections from a number of sister institutions: fishes from the National Marine Fisheries Service’s Tropical Atlantic Biological Laboratory and Florida State University; mollusks from the University of Alabama and Rollins College; and fossil invertebrates from the Florida Geological Survey.
Through a $5.25 million grant from the Goodhill Foundation, the 9,500-acre Katharine Ordway Preserve was acquired and the Katharine Ordway Chair of Ecosystem Conservation established in the Museum.
Through a generous gift by its founder, Arthur C. Allyn, Jr., the Museum acquired the Allyn Museum of Entomology in Sarasota in February 1981. With this addition, the Museum received the largest butterfly collection in the Western Hemisphere and gained two Lepidoptera curators.
Thomas Peter Bennett became Museum director.
The Florida State Museum’s name was changed to the Florida Museum of Natural History to more accurately reflect its mission.
Once again the continued growth of the research collections resulted in a shortage of space. Construction of a new exhibit and public education facility, Powell Hall, began on Hull Road near Southwest 34th Street, approximately two miles west of Dickinson Hall. The 55,000-square-foot building was made possible by a leadership gift of $3 million from two Florida alumni couples, Bob and Ann and Steve and Carol Powell of Fort Lauderdale, and matching funds from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the state of Florida. Powell Hall joined the Samuel P. Harn Museum of Art and Curtis M. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts as the third component in the University of Florida Cultural Plaza on the western edge of campus.
The Randell family gifted 53 acres of a 240-acre, internationally significant archaeological site on Pineland in Lee County to the University of Florida, which the Florida Museum operates as the Randell Research Center. This research and education program is an extension of the Museum’s Southwest Florida Project.
With the departure of Bennett in 1996, Douglas S. Jones became interim director of the Museum and was named permanent director in 1997. Powell Hall was dedicated and opened briefly to the public that same year. The vacated space in Dickinson Hall was retrofitted to relieve crowding due to continued collection growth. The first phase of retrofitting was completed when the Herbarium moved from Rolf’s Hall into Dickinson Hall. A major capital campaign is underway to fund initiatives at both Dickinson and Powell halls.
After a temporary closing near the end of 1997, the Museum re-opened to the public in January. All of the exhibits and public education programs were relocated to Powell Hall where the permanent exhibits were installed in following years.
A $4.2 million gift from William and Nadine McGuire of Wayzata, Minn., established the McGuire Center for Lepidoptera and Biodiversity. This was one of the largest private gifts to foster research on insects and was matched by the state Alec Courtelis Facility Enhancement Challenge Grant Program. In 2002, the McGuires gave another $3 million to fund final construction of the center.
The $12 million facility for Lepidoptera research and public exhibits opened in August. It houses one of the world’s largest collections of butterflies and moths and features a 6,400-square-foot Butterfly Rainforest exhibit — a screened, outdoor enclosure of lush tropical trees and plants with hundreds of living butterflies and moths from around the world, waterfalls and a walking trail.
The Florida Museum celebrates its 100th anniversary since the signing of the legislative statutes establishing it as the state museum of natural history.
Throughout its existence, the Florida Museum of Natural History has grown in size, quality and diversity. The Museum remains clearly focused on its mandated functions to undertake scientific research, make collections, establish and maintain a repository, develop exhibitions and conduct interpretive programs to educate the public.