A brief history of American museum catalogs to 1860

Cataloging History, Part 1


How do you describe an exhibition? Museums and exhibitions are multi-media, multi-sensory places. Full of objects, of course, each of them complicated, three-dimensional things with no end of details that can never be fully described. The objects are displayed in ways that have particular meanings, whether hung on walls or under glass in a cabinet or arrayed behind a velvet rope. They are arranged so as to create juxtapositions that make a point, or tell a story.

Some Early History

Musei Wormiani, 1654
Samuel Quiccheberg’s Inscriptiones, 1565
Ole Worm et al., Museum Wormianum, seu, Historia rerum rariorum : tam naturalium, quam artificialium, tam domesticarum, quam exoticarum, quae Hafniae Danorum in aedibus authoris servantur (Lugduni Batavorum : Apud Iohannem Elsevirium, 1655), http://archive.org/details/gri_museumwormia00worm
Catalogue des Objets Contenus dans la Galerie du Muséum Français, 1793

Early American Museum Catalogs

Charles Willson Peale, “The Artist in his Museum,” , 1822. Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia
A scientific and descriptive catalogue of Peale’s Museum, by C.W. Peale, Member of the American Philosophical Society, and A.M.F.J. Beauvois, Member of the Society of Arts and Sciences of St. Domingo; of the American Philosophical Society; and correspondent to the Museum of Natural History at Paris. Philadelphia, 1796
The East-India Marine Society of Salem. (Salem, 1821)
Frederick Gore King, Catalogue of the Anatomical Museum in the College of Physicians and Surgeons, New York. (New York, 1825)
John R. Peters, Guide To, or Descriptive Catalogue of the Chinese Museum, in the Marlboro’ Chapel, Boston, with Miscellaneous Remarks upon the Government, History, Religions, Literature, Agriculture, Arts, Trade, Manners and Customs of the Chinese. By John R. Peters, Jr. To Be Had Only at the Museum. (Boston: Eastburn’s Press., 1845),
The Chinese Museum in its Philadelphia incarnation, 1838–1841
Spencer Fullerton Baird, The Mammals of North America: The Descriptions of Species Based Chiefly on the Collections in the Museum of the Smithsonian Institution (J.B. Lippincott & Company, 1857)

New York City Exhibitions and their Catalogs

The Brooklyn Naval Lyceum. From Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, 1 August 1857. Courtesy Brooklyn Navy Yard Center at BLDG 92
Fair of the American Institute, Niblo’s Garden, c. 1845. Museum of the City of New York
National Academy of Design (U.S.): Catalogue of the thirteenth annual exhibition. (New York : Printed by E.B. Clayton, 1838)
Catalogue of a private collection of paintings and original drawings by artists of the Düsseldorf Academy of Fine Arts (New York: W. C. Bryant & co., printers, 1851)
Fowler and Wells phrenological museum, 308 Broadway. 1860
United States Naval Lyceum, Brooklyn Naval Yard, 1857
“Iconographic Catalogue of the U.S. Lyceum, at the Navy-Yard, Brooklyn, NY,” US Nautical Magazine and Naval Journal, 1856 1855
“Iconographic Catalogue of the U.S. Lyceum, at the Navy-Yard, Brooklyn, NY,” US Nautical Magazine and Naval Journal, 1856 1855
Barnum Museum, 1853. New-York Historical Society Museum and Library.
Barnum’s American Museum, Catalogue or Guide Book of Barnum’s American Museum (New York: Printed and published for the proprietor, n.d.).


These essays are dedicated to the memory of David Jaffee, whose work at the Bard Graduate Center inspired their writing. They are based on a presentation to the Bard Graduate Center symposium on the New York City Crystal Palace, part of the opening ceremonies of the New York Crystal Palace 1853 exhibition.



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Steven Lubar

Professor of American Studies at Brown University. Author of Inside the Lost Museum: Curating, Past and Present.