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Department of Public Instruction correspondence

Identifier: DR 047

Scope and Contents

The archive is arranged in two boxes of 42 consecutively numbered folders, covering the years 1903-1908 (with one exception: a letter dated 1909 in folder 39). It comprises correspondence, administrative paperwork, and other documents regarding the following:

(1) planning, scheduling, and ticketing for school and public lectures and for the development and delivery of circulating collections for classroom use;

(2) correspondence and orders from the Department to specimen suppliers;

(3) letters and reports describing the work of the Department; and

(4) correspondence with teachers’ associations and public school officials in New York and elsewhere nationally and internationally.

The contents of the archive illustrate the overwhelming volume of administrative detail generated by the Department’s ambitious reach. George Sherwood and Hermon Bumpus between them handled all the routine business of planning and issuing tickets for each year’s classroom and public lectures and assembling and delivering circulating specimen collections to teacher training colleges and public school classrooms all over the City and beyond—with only minimal assistance from what we would now call “support staff.” Given this huge workload, it is astonishing how flexible they managed to be: arranging for lectures on new subjects or at unscheduled times and venues as requested, working with the City’s subway officials to assure safe transport for classes coming from a distance, and hosting special tours for visiting school groups. It is also impressive how many of the Museum’s curators participated in the lecture programs. Correspondence with representatives of teachers’ associations and with educators in other jurisdictions indicates some of the policy considerations that shaped the Department’s programs, many of which were emulated by school districts elsewhere in the country.

The archive is organized in chronologically labeled folders, subdivided by alphabetical sections within each folder. (In some folders the alphabetical sections are arbitrary and do not refer to the names of correspondents; this is explained in the Container List below.) Folders 1-2 contain general correspondence dated 1904-1905; folders 3-18 cover orders for classroom specimens in 1904-1905; folders 19-28 cover the children’s lecture programs in 1903-1904; folder 29 contains miscellaneous correspondence and material from 1903-1904; and folders 30 onwards cover the Department’s activities from 1906-1908.

Because so much of the archive contents are routine administrative materials, this Finding Aid highlights only selected documents, noted “Of interest” in many of the folders.


  • 1903-1909
  • Majority of material found within 1904-1909


Language of Materials


Access Conditions and Restrictions

Requests to use the collection should be made in advance to the Senior Special Collections Librarian, who may be contacted at 212-769-5420 or at [email protected]

Historical Note

The Department of Public Instruction originated with one of the Museum’s founders, Albert S. Bickmore, who envisioned the Museum as a necessary and integral component of the teaching of natural science in the City’s public education system. In 1880, the Museum signed a contract with the State Department of Education for Bickmore to deliver six free lectures in zoology to 30 selected principals and teachers the following year. Immediately thereafter, another course on physical zoology was developed, two workrooms in the attic were converted into lecture rooms, and the Board of Education wrote to the City’s principals and teachers urging them to bring students into the Museum at weekends and on holidays.

In 1884, the State legislature authorized an appropriation of $18,000 to support free lectures for teachers in the “common schools” and “normal schools” (teacher-training colleges) in a wide variety of scientific subjects, to be illustrated by slides and specimens from the Museum’s collections. This marked the launch of a formal Department of Public Instruction, with Bickmore at its head. He developed a four-year plan for 20 lectures a year, to be illustrated with lantern slide shows and specimens as a teaching technique that he later characterized as Visual Instruction. He also proposed the construction of a lecture hall capable of seating 1200, with a view to eventually reaching not only teachers but also “the working classes of the city.” However, by 1889 when a new lecture hall with over 1000 seats did open, it was already too small: more than 3000 teachers applied for tickets to the spring course, and at the closing lecture of the year, 1300 squeezed into the hall and the program had to be repeated for a second audience of 700.

In 1890, Dr. Frederick Starr of the Department of Ethnology also began to give lectures for teachers, and from this point additional curators were enlisted to expand the range of the Museum’s lecture series to new subjects of general interest and to wider audiences of members and the general public. In 1892 the Museum and Columbia College launched a joint lecture program on subjects relating to the collections, a few years later the Linnaean Society started a series of lectures, and in 1896, under an agreement with the State Superintendent of Public Instruction, the Museum began preparing slides and materials from its lecture series for delivery to schools in the larger cities of New York State.

In 1900 a new and even larger lecture hall—now the site of the Lefrak IMAX Theater—opened in the new North Wing.

But in 1904, the year after this archive of correspondence opens, the Department of Public Instruction experienced several setbacks. The State failed to renew the Museum’s contract for 1905, and Bickmore himself was by that time in very poor health; in 1905 he withdrew from active participation and was able to give only occasional lectures. In that year George H. Sherwood, Assistant Curator of Invertebrate Zoology, assumed the position as Curator of the Department of Public Instruction, with Bickmore appointed as Curator Emeritus. Hermon C. Bumpus, the Museum’s Director, joined Sherwood in both the leadership and the day-to-day administration of the Department’s activities

Under Sherwood, the jurisdiction of the Department expanded to include all of the Museum’s work related to public schools and lectures, as well as all photographic work and custody of all negatives, photographs, and slides for use not only in the lecture programs, but also for exhibitions, publications, and reference by writers, artists, and illustrators. After the end of the State contract, the Department focused on the provision of circulating classroom collections (funded by the City Board of Education) as well as illustrated lectures for schoolchildren at the Museum. In 1906, classroom specimen collections were supplied on request to more than 300 schools, reaching 800,000 pupils, and over 17,000 attended the Museum’s children’s lectures. The following year the Museum purchased an electric delivery wagon to distribute its materials to the City’s schools. Mrs. Agnes Roesler joined the Department staff as an instructor, responsible for meeting with Museum members, accompanying school groups through the exhibition halls, meeting with classes from the normal colleges, and conducting laboratory sessions onsite. Also in that year, mini-exhibits were placed in selected branches of The New York Public Library. A highlight of the year was a lecture delivered to the Museum’s members by the famous Polar explorer Commander R.E. Peary.

In 1908, the last year documented by this archive of correspondence, Museum attendance topped one million for the first time, drawn by the International Tuberculosis Exhibition. The Annual Report for 1908 notes that 205 lectures were delivered at the Museum, 484 specimen cabinets were in circulation in the schools of the Greater New York area reaching 575,801 pupils, and the Museum’s exhibits in branch libraries had led to “striking” demand for books on related subjects. Mrs. Roesler attended the Conference of the Museums Association of Great Britain to give a talk on her work in museum education, which by that time was considered a model for other museums both in the United States and abroad.


2 Linear Feet (2 boxes)

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Interdepartmental transfer from AMNH Department of Education, June 2007.

Related Archival Material

The Library’s Special Collections contain many archives dealing with the history of the Museum’s education programs. Researchers interested in the early years of these activities should also consult the papers and publications of Albert S. Bickmore. The Museum’s Annual Reports contain detailed information, often including full lists of the lectures delivered for school and general audiences in the course of each year.

Physical Description

Primarily carbon copies of letters and reports: also handwritten notes, postcards, receipts, circulars, administrative forms, and miscellaneous printed material.

Department of Public Instruction correspondence, 1903-1909 (bulk 1904-1909)
Trudy Hayden, September 2011
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description
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Language of description note
The Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation provided support to make this finding aid available in ArchivesSpace (2016-2017). Minimal level collection record created with support from the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) Hidden Collections grant, 2010.

Repository Details

Part of the Museum Archives at the Gottesman Research Library Repository

American Museum of Natural History
200 Central Park West
New York NY 10024 USA
(212) 769-5420