The origins of the Museum of Anthropology can be traced to the establishment of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor in 1837. In legislation authorizing the creation of the University, the state legislature approved the formation of a “Cabinet of Natural History” on the new Ann Arbor campus. Although a formal museum building was not constructed until 1881, collections quickly began to flow into the University, and were initially housed in faculty offices and department basements. The original mission of the University Museum was the study of natural history. However, the collections soon included archaeological and—with Professor of Geology Douglass Houghton’s 1840 donation of a Chippewa canoe—ethnographic objects. By 1850, the Museum included a division of “Relics and Archaeology.”
It was not until the 1870s that the Museum began to acquire well-documented anthropological collections. The Smithsonian Institution was a major contributor, donating ethnographic artifacts from Alaska, the Pacific, and the U.S. Southwest. During the 1870s, the University of Michigan launched a five-year collecting expedition under U-M zoologist Joseph Beal Steere. Steere journeyed up the Amazon, across the Andes, and by boat to Taiwan and Southeast Asia—all the while shipping crates of plant and animal specimens and cultural artifacts to the University Museum.
In 1881, the University completed its first Museum Building to house the University’s growing collections. The museum was reorganized into six separate museums: The Museum of Fine Arts and History, The Museum of Applied Chemistry, The Museum of the Department of Medicine and Surgery, The Museum of the College of Dental Surgery, and The Museum of Natural History, the latter including geology, botany, zoology and anthropology.
Anthropological collections continued to be added to the Museum over the next four decades. In 1885, the Chinese Imperial Government donated its entire exhibition from the 1884–1885 New Orleans World Cotton Centennial to the University in recognition of University President James B. Angell, who had served as U.S. minister to China in 1880–1881.
Archaeological objects in the University Museum collections began to be used in formal training in archaeology in 1892 when Harlon I. Smith, a first-year undergraduate from Saginaw, arranged for Professor Francis Kelsey to offer the first archaeology course taught with museum artifacts. Smith also organized the University’s first permanent exhibition of anthropological collections.
In 1906, Alexander G. Ruthven was appointed curator of zoology in the Museum of Natural History. By this time, the 1881 Museum building had become crowded with collections, so the geology collections were transferred to the Department of Geology, and in 1913 the Museum was formally renamed Museum of Zoology, with Ruthven as its director. Ruthven (who became president of the University in 1929) was passionate about the University Museums’ contributions to scientific research and education. He oversaw the construction of the Ruthven Museums Building, which opened in 1928 and which still bears his name.