Our History

Panorama within the Kansas pavilion at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair.
What began as a small "cabinet of natural history" at the University of Kansas has transformed into a hub of biodiversity research.

In 1864, as part of the university's charter, the Kansas legislature mandated that the university compile "a cabinet of natural history." The cabinet would be a teaching tool. Students would be able to study biology through preserved examples, rather than only textbooks. The university charged Professor Francis Huntington Snow with creating the cabinet. For 40 years he amassed a major assortment of fish, birds, mammals, plants, insects and reptiles. In 1886, the university moved the burgeoning collection to newly built Snow Hall. In 1893, the collection came to the attention of many through the Kansas pavilion at the Chicago World's Fair. The fair included a show-stopping panorama of 121 North American mammals prepared by Lewis Lindsay Dyche, one of Snow's students and an avid taxidermist and naturalist.

The Kansas legislature eventually approved $75,000 for construction of a new building, paving the way for the third home for the museum's collections. The 1903 Romanesque building took three years to construct and became a university landmark. The building was named for Dyche following his death in 1915 is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Professors Dyche and Snow shared a goal to acquire and preserve as many specimens as possible, identify new species and study physiology. But the world of biology was changing, and the role of the museum evolved with it. One of their successors, Charles Dean Bunker, had new aspirations when he joined the museum in 1907. He envisioned a museum that could be "a generator of new knowledge, a center for research rather than one primarily for passive display." Bunker's emphasis on using specimens for research carried the museum into a new era. Gradually the role of the museum became two-fold under the leadership of scientists such as Henry H. Lane, Edward Taylor, E. Raymond Hall and Philip Humphrey. The museum's purpose was as much to educate the public with displays and programs as to use its collections to further the understanding of the world through scientific study.

As the "behind-the-scenes" research at the museum took off, expansion became necessary. In 1963, the university added a north wing to create additional laboratory and office space. In 1993, the Ethanol Research Collection Facility was constructed to house the specimens preserved in ethanol at an ideal temperature and humidity. The renovation of Dyche Hall mirrored the progress of the growing research programs. Under the direction of Leonard Krishtalka, the museum added new programs such as biodiversity informatics. Graduate education — the training of future scientists — expanded as an integral part of the museum's mission. In 2003, the two-fold relationship was formalized through the creation of the Biodiversity Institute. The Biodiversity Institute encompasses all of the museum's collections-based research programs, scientific staff and graduate students. As one of its units, the KU Natural History Museum continues to be a local and regional resource for natural history exhibits and public education programs. Today, what began as the cabinet of natural history includes some 8 million specimens and 1.2 million archaeological artifacts. Students and staff are distributed across seven buildings on campus and conduct research on all continents. Their work is supported by millions of dollars in federal research grants. Biodiversity Institute scientists continue to seek answers to core questions in biodiversity science, evolution and environmental change. Photos © University Archives. Permission required for use.