Women of the Museum, 1860–1920: Behind-the-Screens at the Museum of Comparative Zoology

March 31, 2021
black and white image of a woman working in the entomology collection, ca. 1890
Here, the ghostly silhouette of an unnamed woman, right, as she works in the Museum of Comparative Zoology’s Entomology Collection, ca. 1890. Courtesy of the Ernst Mayr Library ©President and Fellows of Harvard College

The Harvard Museums of Science and Culture (HMSC) celebrates Women’s History Month with the online exhibit Women of the Museum, 1860–1920: Behind-the-Screens at the Museum of Comparative Zoology which features extensive materials from the Ernst Mayr Library Special Collections and Archives of the Museum of Comparative Zoology. 

Through her careful research on the roles, lives, working conditions, and invisible labor of these women, guest curator Reed Gochberg offers the virtual visitor a view of their work preparing collections for public exhibits, cataloging specimens, and planning educational offerings. She explains, “The museum’s records provide only brief glimpses of the women who first worked here, but this exhibit has been an exciting opportunity to highlight their contributions and consider the early history of the museum through their lives and experiences. We can see their legacy across the museum’s collections, from laboratories and galleries to the specimens they collected and catalogued. It’s also an important reminder of the many people and histories behind individual objects at the museum.”

The exhibit includes fascinating insights into the structure of the museum’s operations, such as a salary chart from the 1880s and photographs of late 19th and early 20th century galleries and classrooms, as well as unique specimens from the museum’s collections.