History of the Collection

The development of a natural history museum at Oberlin followed a pattern common to many colleges and universities in the early to mid-19th century (Kohlstedt 1988a, 1988b).  It was initiated by faculty members George Nelson Allen, who was an avid collector of all aspects of the natural world including rocks, minerals, shells, zoological specimens, plants, and insects.  This interest extended to the material culture of Native Americans, whose “arrowheads”, pots and beadwork equally fascinated.  Their early collecting efforts gained impetus as rigorous scientific endeavors with the emergence of Darwin’s evolutionary model in 1859.  Indeed, the “cabinet of curiosities” (see Stocking 1985) that Allen established in the same year was the essential precursor to the Oberlin College Museum of Natural History realized by Allen’s nephew and successor Albert A. Wright in the last three decades of the 19th century. 

Wright was a university trained scientist and a committed Darwinian who dedicated his career to developing a modern curriculum in biological science at Oberlin.  He introduced laboratory instruction and transformed Oberlin’s cabinet of curiosities into a well-stocked teaching museum whose specimen inventories were appropriately suited to the instructional needs of the emerging field of biology. 

With the help of his able assistant, Lewis M. McCormick, Wright expanded the collection strategies employed by his uncle to include exchange of natural history materials with the Smithsonian and related institutions, the development of regional Ohio collections via exchange with local scholars, and the inclusion of specimens from his own statewide research.   He particularly encouraged alumni missionaries and teachers to donate cultural and natural history materials to enhance the museum collections, and provide “exotic” items that could be employed in exchange transactions with other institutions.  One outstanding example of this practice sent a large collection of South East African ethnological objects (e.g., spears, shields, musical instruments) to the Smithsonian in 1888 and added an important Arctic collection for Oberlin in return (Margaris and Grimm 2011).     

Always short of resources and storage space, the museum migrated from one building to another over the course of its history, ending up in Wright Zoological Laboratory in 1927.  All of the other sciences had migrated to their own quarters by this time, taking their associated collections and equipment with them.  The zoological specimens and the effectively homeless ethnological collection—Anthropology did not become part of the Oberlin curriculum until the mid 1940’s with the appointment of Loren Eiseley —were all that remained in the museum.  An inventory of Oberlin’s cabinet prepared by Wright early in his tenure was discovered recently in the Oberlin College Museum files.  The place of the ethnological materials in the overall museum plan is made clear by Wright’s description here of “relics, implements, ornaments, armor, weapons, fabrics, and curiosities from all parts of the world [that are] temporarily cared for, until a historical collection shall be founded independently” (emphasis added).

No benefactor ever came forward to secure the establishment of an anthropological museum at Oberlin, and the status of the ethnological collections remained in limbo even after they came under the control of anthropologists when they moved into the King Building after its completion in the mid-1960’s.  Students occasionally prepared small exhibits but, in general, the collections played no significant role in the academic program.   All of this has changed now thanks to the dedicated and industrious students of museum anthropology who spent three years, working under the direction of Linda Grimm (now Professor Emerita of Anthropology), cataloguing and photographing the objects under the aegis of the Oberlin College Ethnographic Collection Project.  Professor Albert Borroni, Director of OCTET, developed a customized content management system that allowed us to make the collection readily available on the web to Oberlin students and interested scholars elsewhere.  More recently, a Five Colleges of Ohio Next Generation Library Grant, awarded to Linda Grimm and Amy Margaris (OC Associate Professor of Anthropology) has funded the translation of our original database into ContentDM format and allowed us to place it with the Oberlin College Library’s growing collection of digital resources. Thus, while hands-on work with the objects in the collection is precluded by the lack of appropriate museum facilities, Oberlin students now have digital access to an historic Oberlin College resource.


Barnard, John
1969 From Evangelicalism to Progressivism at Oberlin College, 1866–1917. Columbus: Ohio State   University Press.

Fairchild, James Harris, 
1883 Oberlin: the colony and the college, 1833-1883.  Oberlin, Ohio, E. J.     Goodrich.

Kohlstedt, Sally Gregory
1988a  Curiosities and Cabinets: Natural History Museums and Education on the Antebellum Campus. Isis 79(3):405–426.

1988b  Museums on Campus: A Tradition of Inquiry and Teaching. In The American Development of Biology. Ronald Rainger, Keith R. Benson, and Jane Maienschein, eds. Pp. 15–47. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Leonard, Delavan L.
1898  The Story of Oberlin: the institution, the community, the idea, the movement.  Boston: Pilgrim Press.

Margaris, Amy V. and Linda T. Grimm
2011  Collecting for a College Museum: Exchange Practices and the Life History of a 19th Century Arctic Collection. Museum Anthropology Vol. 34(2): 109-127. (OberlinSHARES Open Access repository)

Stocking, George W., Jr., ed.
1985  Objects and Others: Essays on Museums and Material Culture. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Walsh, Jane MacLaren
2002 Collections as Currency. In Anthropology, History and American Indians: Essays in Honor of William Curtis Sturtevant.William L. Merrill and Ives Goddard, eds. Pp. 201–209. Smithsonian Contributions to Anthropology No. 44. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press.