World-class CU Museum of Natural History Grew from Humble Roots

24 May 2017

Natural history collection is the region’s largest

By Ruthanne Johnson To peruse the exhibits in CU’s Museum of Natural History, on campus at 15th and Broadway in Boulder, you’d never guess the museum’s humble beginnings. Within its stunning exterior—built from local pink sandstone and topped with a deep red, Tuscan-style roof—exhibit halls highlight collections that reflect the university’s departments of ecology and evolutionary biology, geological sciences and anthropology. The exhibits rotate regularly, some staying a year or more, others for just a few months.
Photo of Native American Basket courtesy CU Museum of Natural History
There’s a gift shop with books and handcrafted jewelry and other art; and the Biolounge, filled with curiosities and nature-centric art, comfy Victorian-style couches and free Wi-Fi, tea and coffee. The upper floors provide space for more than 50 staff, who stay busy managing the museum and its artifacts and specimens, including fossils; ancient stone tools, pottery, baskets and textiles; plants and insects, shells, rocks and more. This year marks the 115th anniversary of the museum’s founding in 1902 and the 80th anniversary of the Henderson Building, built in 1937. The original museum was far from the operation it is today, says museum director Dr. Patrick Kociolek, whose research specialty is diatoms, a class of microscopic algae. Junius Henderson was the museum’s first curator, who, without pay, accepted the task of unifying, organizing and cataloging unrelated collections from the university’s various sciences into a museum. The collection would be used for research and studies. The museum initially shared space in the Hale Building with other university departments, including English. And there were only two appointed employees, a few fossils, rocks and minerals, and several mounted birds and mammals.
“Theo” Cockerell (1866-1948) was an internationally known entomologist, a prolific science writer and a respected professor at CU Boulder from 1904 to 1934. Cockerell helped popularize Colorado for a wide variety of scientific disciplines. He revealed the importance of Colorado’s diverse bee species, the ancient fossil beds in Florissant, and the mutated red sunflower discovered in Boulder.  (photo courtesy CU Museum of Natural History)
In 1909, the university declared the museum a separate department and awarded Henderson a salary, a full professorship and a $500 annual budget. Along with professors T.D.A. Cockerell, Francis Ramaley and Earl Morris, Henderson worked with university faculty and other scientists and collectors to expand their number of specimens and artifacts. Morris began archaeological work for the museum in 1913, collecting fossils and ancient artifacts. Cockerell’s native Colorado bee and botanic specimens, as well as Henderson’s extensive shell collection, were added to the museum. The Hale Building was soon bursting at the seams. In 1936, the university hired the prestigious architect Charles Klauder to design a new building for the museum. Klauder’s masterpieces included buildings on the campuses of Princeton, Cornell and the University of Pennsylvania, as well as Old Main, Macky Auditorium and more than 10 others he’d previously designed for CU Boulder. Then-CU president George Norlin saw Klauder’s creations as “the outward frame of the university’s soul.” The Henderson Building was completed on Nov. 16, 1937, at a cost of $135,000.
Architect Charles Klauder chose black accent materials to contrast with a Tuscan color scheme that included local pink sandstone and a deep-red roof for the Henderson Museum building, seen above around 1943, a few years after it was built.
(photo courtesy CU Museum of Natural History)
The interior lobby features architect Klauder’s original designs.
(photo courtesy CU Museum of Natural History)
Specimen collecting continued, like the thousands of amazing lichens and other plants Professor William Weber dug up from all over the world for the botany collection. The museum still had very few paid employees, so most of the work depended on volunteers like Weber, a paid professor who supported the museum during his off time. “I helped build the plant collection for the museum, and it’s a damn good one,” says Weber, who is now 98 years old. Glancing down at his hands, he adds with a chuckle, “My knuckles are bare from the digging.”

5 Million Things to Share

Over the decades, the museum has evolved from simply collecting, counting and holding things to researching and understanding them. The collection has grown to nearly 5 million artifacts and specimens, and is touted as the largest natural history collection in the Rocky Mountains, representing five disciplines: anthropology, botany, entomology, paleontology and zoology. The museum now offers exhibits, lectures, classes, and “citizen science” and other events geared toward public education and sharing its treasures with the community. In 2003, the museum was accredited by the American Association of Museums, an achievement earned by less than 5 percent of U.S. museums. Collections include the world's oldest documented Navajo textile, and another that was used by explorer John Wesley Powell; dozens of ancient stone tools uncovered right here in Boulder (called the Mahaffey Cache); and Colorado's largest collection of native bees. Museum staff conduct ongoing research using the extensive collections, such as understanding ancient native peoples and how warming temperatures affect the state’s flora and fauna. “The native bee collection,” Kociolek says, “brought the realization that we have this many bee species right here in Colorado and each one has a significant purpose. It laid a baseline of information that allows us to understand and plan for the natural world, and conserve if we need to.”
Coffee, tea or free Wi-Fi? Students come to the Biolounge to study and visit with friends on comfortable Victorian couches amongst some of the museum’s curiosities and nature-centric art. (photo courtesy CU Museum of Natural History)
The Biolounge—Kociolek’s brainchild—was designed in 2009 and has raised the number of student visitors from about 1,200 students a year to around 15,000. It’s a comfortable place for anyone wanting an inspiring place to study, learn and visit with friends, says museum assistant director Sharon Tinianow. The space isn’t library-quiet. To the contrary, it’s a place where people touch meaningful curiosities, wonder about them and excitedly discuss them. Another museum project is digitization of the collections. Specimens are placed under specialized microscopes with cameras that take “about 50 images at very slightly different focal planes before bringing those images together into a single high-resolution, three-dimensional image to use,” Kociolek says. Several hundred thousand specimens have been digitized thus far, along with data such as where and when each was collected, who collected it, and some of the item’s natural history. The collections and data are available to everyone: policy makers, conservation biologists, ecologists, traditional taxonomists and the general public. “It’s allowing us to bring disciplines together,” he says, “—the arts, humanities and social sciences. And down the road, people will be able to access the database to create their own field guide of an area’s plants, animals and insects.” In the months leading up to the Nov. 16 anniversary, the museum is hosting a series of lectures about the first collections and their dedicated contributors. Exciting changes will be made in the gift shop and the kids’ Discovery Corner in the Biolounge. The exhibit halls will display items from the original collections, and busts of Henderson and Cockerell. The staff also has plans for period surprises—perhaps a little Glenn Miller or The Andrews Sisters playing in the background, or servings of nonalcoholic Shirley Temples. For more information about anniversary-related exhibits, events and lectures at the CU Museum of Natural History, visit
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