ASM's Role in the History of American Museums

June 6, 2016

State Museum display in lower regions of Arizona Stadium, 1930–35.

By Irene Bald Romano, Ph.D., deputy director, Arizona State Museum

The first anthropology museum in the Southwest, Arizona State Museum (ASM) was originally established in 1893 by the Arizona Territorial Legislature as the Arizona Territorial Museum, 19 years before Arizona became a state.

ASM and the University of Arizona (UA), founded in 1885 as Arizona’s land grant university in sparsely populated Tucson, were inextricably bound from the museum’s inception—and the museum was set up in UA’s one and only building at that time, Old Main. For administrative purposes, it was made part of the university.

The museum’s founding mission, as stated in Territorial House Bill 42 introduced by territorial legislator (later governor) George W.P. Hunt, was for the “collection and preservation of the archaeological resources, specimens of the mineral wealth, and the flora and fauna of the Territory.” The first focus of the museum, therefore, was consistent with that of a natural history museum. It was when Byron Cummings became director of ASM in 1915 that the mission of the museum turned exclusively to anthropology.

There were a handful of unique museums that were founded in 18th century America, but the last quarter of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries is aptly called the first “Golden Age of Museums” when many museums were founded with lofty goals of bringing culture and education to the rapidly growing populace in American cities. In the same year as the founding of ASM, the Columbian Exposition was held in Chicago to herald the anniversary of Columbus’ discovery of the New World. It was in many ways a watershed moment in the cultural history of America and had a profound influence on museums and museum concepts, giving birth to important museums, including the Field Museum of Natural History and the Art Institute of Chicago.

In Europe, as well as in America, the concept of natural history and archaeology / anthropology museums was already well known by the time of ASM’s founding.

The Smithsonian Institution had been established in 1846, following the 1829 bequest of James Smithson to the U.S. government; its first building, the Castle, opened in 1849, and its first collections comprised an eclectic mixture of natural history specimens and works of art. In the 1860s New York’s major public institutions, the American Museum of Natural History (1869) and the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1870), were built on opposite sides of Central Park, delineating their broad collecting interests—natural history / anthropology versus art.

In that same period, the Peabody Museum at Harvard (1866) was founded—one of the oldest museums in America devoted exclusively to anthropology, with strengths in North American archaeology and ethnology. The University of Pennsylvania Museum had its origins in 1887 and became one of the largest university museums in the world devoted to archaeology and anthropology.

Shortly afterwards, ASM became the first anthropology museum to be founded in the Southwest. Today, the Peabody Museum, the Penn Museum, and ASM are the three premier university anthropology museums in America in terms of the scope, size, and importance of their collections.

ASM, however, has the rare distinction of being both a university museum and a state museum—Arizona’s official state repository for archaeological collections.

For more on the history of Arizona State Museum see:

Brace, Martha A. and Nancy J. Parezo,

  • 1984 “The Arizona State Museum,” American Indian Art Magazine Winter, pp. 24-31.

Wilder, Carleton S.

  • 1942 “The Arizona State Museum, history,” Kiva 7, pp. 26-29.

David R. Wilcox

  • 2005 “Creating a Firm Foundation: The Early Years of the Arizona State Museum,” Journal of the Southwest 47:3, pp. 375-410.

Kirsten E. Winter,

  • 1999 More than 100 Years of Digging: A History of the Arizona State Museum. M.A. thesis: University of Arizona.