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About the Collections

History of the Museum

Dr. Arthur C. Parker

The Rochester Municipal Museum was founded in 1912 by a City Ordinance, under the supervision of the Public Library Board. It was “dedicated to providing a permanent repository” for local historical artifacts, referred to as “relics.” In 1925 it became an official City Department with its own Commissioners. In 1926, Dr. Arthur Parker, Museum Director, stated that the “Rochester Municipal Museum is an institution dedicated to the service of the City of Rochester and to the cause of Education.”

Rochester Museum of Arts and Sciences

In 1930, the name of the institution was changed to Rochester Museum of Arts and Sciences. The scope of the museum was now defined as arts and sciences (including history and anthropology), to “make the public aware that the museum was not just a receptacle for all city treasures and mementos, but had a systematic collections policy and focused educational aims.”

Rochester Museum of Arts and Sciences

The museum would change its name again almost 40 years later. In 1968, the museum’s Board of Trustees assumed operation from the City of Rochester, accepting Monroe County’s promise to fund the museum’s operations and its care of the “People’s Collections.” The museum received a charter from the NYS Board of Regents as a private, not-for-profit educational institution and the institution name officially changed to the Rochester Museum & Science Center. The newly-stated purpose of the RMSC was “To maintain and operate a scientific and educational center to consist of a museum and planetarium, and including exhibits, collections, libraries, displays, and also research, exploration, development, and educational programs and publications incident or otherwise related thereto.”

The following mission statement emerged in the 1990s: “The mission of the RMSC is to provide, through public education, at all levels of the population a better understanding of the laws of science and nature and the cultural evolution of mankind.”

The Board of Trustees formally adopted the current mission statement on November 26, 1997: “The Rochester Museum & Science Center creates inspiring, entertaining and educational experiences enabling visitors to explore science and technology, the natural environment and our region’s cultural heritage.”

Collecting Overview

The more than 1.2 million objects in our collection reflect this region’s cultural and natural history. These objects present the RMSC with a unique opportunity to meld excellent collections with innovative interactives, enabling us to be in the forefront of providing educational experiences that are presently unavailable in the Greater Rochester area. We have been increasing the accessibility to the collections both internally and externally via improved collection storage, computerized inventories, and other documentation. As a consequence, we are expanding upon our knowledge of the collections and the unique stories they tell.

The Human Cultures and Communities Program (incorporating ethnology, prehistoric archaeology, historic archaeology, anthropology, regional history) has been increasingly collecting objects that relate to the local Italian, Jewish, and African American populations, as well as other groups from throughout the community. In addition, this program has been pursuing objects that reflect the important technological innovations developed in the Rochester area in the latter part of the 20th century. Recently, the RMSC and the Latino Advocacy Coalition have forged a partnership to create Regional Latino Archives in the Rochester area. This is an historic and important project to identify records and papers that document the history of the Latino community in Rochester. The Native American collection is, by far, the largest in the museum and documents Haudenosaunee culture from an archaeological, historic, and ethnological perspective. It is the finest collection of this type in the world. Finally, the Natural Science collections extend the “history” of our region back more than 435 million years.

Descriptions of RMSC Collections

The museum’s collections currently include an estimated 1,143,000 objects. The collections support the illustration and investigation of major events in the natural, cultural, and technological history of the nine county region. A continental and world comparative perspective is achieved in some sections of the collection by collecting beyond the region.

Evolutionary and Environmental Sciences Collections (26,000 specimens) represent a comprehensive record of west-central New York’s natural history. The paleontology collection (12,000 specimens) includes regional and comparative vertebrate and invertebrate fossils. Local geologic specimens are complemented by rocks, minerals, and meteorites from throughout the world. Zoology materials include mammals, birds, eggs, nests, reptiles, insects, and marine and freshwater shells. The RMSC’s collection of extinct passenger pigeons is one of the nation'’s largest, and cannot be duplicated. Both amateur and professional scientists have shaped the Natural Science collections. In 1954 and 1960 the University of Rochester closed out its own natural history museum and donated its bird and mammal collections to the RMSC. For many years, the Rochester Academy of Science and its members had a long-standing relationship with our museum. Local amateur collectors such as Alvin Dewey (rocks and mineral collections donated in 1920), John Hartfelder (minerals and fossils donated in 1960), Louis Kravetz (insect collections donated in 1983), and John Rivers (fossils donated in 1989) have played a major role in enhancing our collections. The acquisition of the Farview and East Bloomfield Mastodons, two of the most complete and carefully researched mastodons in the state, followed recent fieldwork. Members of the Rochester Academy of Science have had a long-standing relationship with the RMSC. This has recently resulted in the forty-thousand specimen RAS herbarium collection being housed at the RMSC.

Human Cultures and Communities collections (986,000 objects) comprise objects relating to Anthropology (Archaeology, Physical Anthropology, and Ethnology) and History that reflect the range and complexity of our regional human cultures as well as those found throughout the world. The archaeology collections (800,000 objects) include material from Native American and other indigenous people, as well as Euro-Americans. These collections, made over the past 80 years by Arthur Parker, William A. Ritchie, Alvin Dewey, Harrison Follette, and many other professional and amateur archaeologists, represent over 11,000 years of human history. The analysis of these site collections is in large part responsible for the discovery, documentation, and description of the cultural sequence in New York. The historic Iroquois archaeology collection, dating from 1550-1840, is a national treasure that documents the sequence of villages occupied by the Seneca and records the contact between Native people, Europeans, and Americans. Comparative materials from other Iroquois, North and South American, and European cultures are a significant part of the archaeology collections. Euro-American regional life is documented in Historic American archaeological collections (50,000 objects), with sites dating from the 1780s to the early 20th century, including pioneer settlers’ cabins, abandoned villages, farms, grist mills, woolen mills, chair, tile, brick and glass factories, taverns, military forts, and lighthouses.Established in 1984, the RMSC’s Regional Heritage Preservation Program has documented thousands of archaeological sites endangered by modern development. Artifacts collected as part of the program’s investigations become part of the RMSC’s permanent archaeological collections. A highlight of the Ethnology collections (20,960 objects) is the Seneca Collection which includes the 19th century Native American collections made by famed Rochester lawyer/anthropologist and author Lewis Henry Morgan, and the WPA/Indian Arts project encompassing 5,000 objects including paintings, jewelry, and other traditional and tradition-inspired objects created on the Tonawanda and Cattaraugus Indian reservations in New York from 1935-1941.The Ethnology collections also house 5,000 decorative and utilitarian objects from other indigenous cultures of North, Central, and South America, Asia, and Africa. Notable recent acquisitions are the Colgate-Rochester Divinity School ethnology collection of objects obtained by 20th-Century missionaries.

The Regional History collection (164,000 objects) includes clothing and accessories, textiles, domestic economy and household items, children’s and child-rearing objects, communication devices, home furnishings, and items from Rochester technology and science-based industries. Acquired primarily by donation from local people who thought it important that these objects be saved in their community museum, the regional history collections tell the story of middle-class life in 19th- and 20th-Century West-Central New York. Collections of clothing (70,000 pieces), quilts (including two made by Susan B. Anthony), and coverlets are especially comprehensive and have been the subject of scholarly and popular research, publications, and exhibits. These collections represent the lives of the people of our region as well as famous Rochesterians such as Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony, and Rattlesnake Pete. Notable recent acquisitions include the Martha Harper Collections of health and beauty products, the Cerino Collection of Italian immigrant objects, and a series of early Haloid-Xerox machines.

The Library and Archives hold material primarily for research use by the RMSC staff and the public. In some instances library or archives material may have or acquire artifactual value for exhibit or context purposes. For example, a “certificate of freedom” for a previously enslaved woman has artifactual value in its appearance. The many folds, tears, dirt and grease spots tell the story of how this woman valued the documents that made her “a free woman of color.” Other library and archival materials may acquire artifactual value when used in an exhibition.

The Archives Collection (60,000 documents, 40,000 photographs) includes manuscripts, ephemera, documents, prints, maps, and a significant photograph collection comprising photographic prints, negatives (both glass plate and acetate), cased photographs (daguerreotypes, ambrotypes, and tintypes), card photographs, snapshots, albums, stereoviews, and post cards. The most frequently used collection in the museum is the collection of newspaper photographer Albert Stone (14,000 negatives) covering the years 1903-1936. The individual and business archives collections represent a broad spectrum of topics including local businesses and industries, the Civil War, local architectural firms, fish culturist Seth Green, Iroquois Chief Freeman Johnson, Susan B. Anthony, and Frederick Douglass. Highlights of the Archival collection range from a 1790 copy of the 1788 Deed of Conveyance/Treaty for the Phelps and Gorham Purchase of 2.5 million acres of land in Western New York from the Senecas, to the complete broadcast tapes of WHEC-TV news from the late 1950s through the 1960s. Notable recent acquisitions include the papers and broadcast tapes of African American activist, publisher and radio disc jockey Howard Wilson Coles (1903-1996), the Danforth-Huntington Diaries (1863-1917) of three generations of Rochester women, the papers objects of migrant and domestic worker Alice Mathis, and the papers of Rochester beauty-culturist Martha Matilda Harper.

As a community museum, the Rochester Museum has benefited since 1912 from the research and collecting activities of historically and scientifically minded individuals and organizations. Early collecting interests included objects related to the industrial, technological, and business history of Rochester and the surrounding region. Items of personal use were donated for the study and interpretation of regional social phenomena, with an emphasis on the life and times of the common people. Other early collections reflected the community’s strong interest in the region’s Native American peoples and the need for exposition of the natural and physical sciences. The Rochester Museum developed a partnership early in its history with the numerous hobby groups in the area. In fact it was the meeting places for these type of activities for many years. Local groups such as the Lewis Henry Morgan Archeological Chapter, the Genesee Valley Quilt Club, and many others have helped the Museum develop its current collection. Today’s collections continue to be largely the result of community giving, field research undertaken by the museum and, more recently, systematic collecting through solicited gifts and purchases. This activity is guided by written collection policy evaluations, a careful analysis of what is available, and predetermined exhibition and programming needs. Most recently, an effort has been made to devise a collecting plan to guide the shaping of RMSC’s collection in the future.