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The origins of the university’s natural history collections date to 1837 when the Michigan state legislature created the University of Michigan. The charter gave the Board of Regents the “authority to spend so much of the university fund to purchase a ‘Cabinet of Natural History.’” This cabinet was kept in one of the professors’ homes until 1841.
The natural history collections grew substantially over the succeeding decades, particularly with alumnus Joseph Beal Steere’s expedition around the world from 1870-75. Steere sent tens of thousands of specimens and artifacts back to the university during those years.
The first U-M museum building was erected in 1881 to house the original “cabinet” and all the natural history specimens that had been collected in the intervening years.
In the early 20th century, the University Museum subdivided into four separate research museums: the Museums of Paleontology, Zoology, and Anthropological Archaeology, and the University Herbarium. The Museum of Natural History, devoted exclusively to the development of exhibits and educational programs, was officially created in 1956, although public displays had been offered for more than 100 years at that point.
In 1925, the Michigan state legislature appropriated $900,000 for a new museums building. Museum Director Alexander Grant Ruthven believed that a museum should be committed to the increase of knowledge and its subsequent diffusion. The two wings of the new building were designed to incorporate this philosophy: one wing housed offices and research facilities while the other wing was devoted to exhibits and displays.
The building was completed in 1928 and housed all four museums: Zoology, Herbarium, Anthropology, and Paleontology, and a large exhibit space. The formal opening was on June 14, 1928, although the exhibits didn’t open to the public until winter of 1929. The building was later named the Alexander G. Ruthven Museums Building after its director and later university president Alexander Grant Ruthven.
In 1956, the administrative relationships of the research museums were changed and that included the creation of the “Exhibit Museum.” The planetarium was added in 1959.
The Exhibit Museum name was formally changed to the University of Michigan Museum of Natural History in 2011—the same year the Provost announced the intention to plan a new Biological Sciences Building, with the possibility of including the Museum of Natural History in it.
Following years of planning, and a 16-month closure, the Museum of Natural History opened in its current home in the U-M School of Literature, Sciences and the Arts’ stunning new Biological Sciences Building on April 14, 2019.