Theodore Roosevelt & the American Museum of Natural History

By Kaleena Fraga

Any visit to New York City is lacking without a stop at the American Museum of Natural History–an experience that can be described a mix between walking through a zoo and stepping back in time. The museum is deeply linked to Theodore Roosevelt, and his love of nature and conservation.

TR journal1
Roosevelt’s journal as an 11 year old

The roots of the museum are as old as 1867, when a young Roosevelt started the “Roosevelt Museum of Natural History” in his bedroom. A sickly child, often confined indoors, Roosevelt found joy in adventure novels and in animals. When he was given a seal skull by a family friend, it quickly became one of his prized possessions–and the first exhibit at the Roosevelt Museum of Natural History. Reflecting on the skull Roosevelt wrote in his autobiography that, “My father and mother encouraged me warmly in this, as they always did in anything that could give me wholesome pleasure or help develop me.” Even once he’d become a young man, Roosevelt’s passion continued. As a student at Harvard, he studied natural history.

The museum was chartered in 1869, and Roosevelt donated his own prized specimens to the museum’s young collection.

Upon leaving office, Roosevelt could boast of an impressive record of conservation that merits the museum’s fawning memorial of him–he had created 51 bird reservations, 18 national monuments, 5 national parks and 4 game preserves, and had enlarged or created 150 national forests. He also established the United States Forest Service and protected over 200 million acres of land for conservation.

Of course, Roosevelt was also a hunter. When he went on a safari after leaving office, the Smithsonian partially funded his trip knowing that he would shoot and bring animals home to be displayed–many of these are now in the Mammals Hall in the Museum of Natural History. His legacy of conservation and his legacy as a hunter leave us with a compelling, yet complicated, legacy.

In trying to describe his view of nature, Roosevelt once said:

“There are no words that can tell the hidden spirit of the wilderness, that can reveal its mystery, its melancholy, and its charm.”

For city-dwellers of Manhattan, and for visitors from afar, the American Museum of Natural History is the next best thing.

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