Arizona State Museum
Arizona State Museum, established in 1893, is the oldest and largest anthropology museum in the region focusing on the indigenous cultures of the US Southwest and northern Mexico. Centrally located on the University of Arizona campus, Arizona State Museum is a treasure trove of the history and culture of the southwestern U.S. and northern Mexico. A few steps from the U of A Main Gate at Park Avenue and University Boulevard, the museum has something for everyone of every age.
Backstory and Context
The first anthropology museum in the Southwest, Arizona State Museum (ASM) was originally established in 1893 by the Arizona Territorial Legislature as the Arizona Territorial Museum, 19 years before Arizona became a state.
ASM and the University of Arizona (UA), founded in 1885 as Arizona’s land grant university in sparsely populated Tucson, were inextricably bound from the museum’s inception--and the museum was set up in UA’s one and only building at that time, Old Main. For administrative purposes, it was made part of the university.
The museum’s founding mission, as stated in Territorial House Bill 42 introduced by territorial legislator (later governor) George W.P. Hunt, was for the “collection and preservation of the archaeological resources, specimens of the mineral wealth, and the flora and fauna of the Territory.” The first focus of the museum, therefore, was consistent with that of a natural history museum. It was when Byron Cummings became director of ASM in 1915 that the mission of the museum turned exclusively to anthropology.
In Europe, as well as in America, the concept of natural history and archaeology / anthropology museums was already well known by the time of ASM’s founding:
The Smithsonian Institution had been established in 1846, following the 1829 bequest of James Smithson to the U.S. government; its first building, the Castle, opened in 1849, and its first collections comprised an eclectic mixture of natural history specimens and works of art. In the 1860s New York’s major public institutions, the American Museum of Natural History (1869) and the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1870), were built on opposite sides of Central Park, delineating their broad collecting interests—natural history / anthropology versus art.
In that same period, the Peabody Museum at Harvard (1866) was founded—one of the oldest museums in America devoted exclusively to anthropology, with strengths in North American archaeology and ethnology. The University of Pennsylvania Museum had its origins in 1887 and became one of the largest university museums in the world devoted to archaeology and anthropology.
Shortly afterwards, ASM became the first anthropology museum to be founded in the Southwest. Today, the Peabody Museum, the Penn Museum, and ASM are the three premier university anthropology museums in America in terms of the scope, size, and importance of their collections. ASM, however, has the rare distinction of being both a university museum and a state museum—Arizona’s official state repository for archaeological collections.1
1 Irene Bald Romano, Ph.D., deputy director, Arizona State Museum, "ASM's Role in the History of American Museums," June 2016, Official Website, accessed November 8, 2016.
For more on the history of Arizona State Museum see:
Martha A. Brace and Nancy J. Parezo, 1984 “The Arizona State Museum,” American Indian Art Magazine Winter, pp. 24-31.
Carleton S. Wilder, 1942 “The Arizona State Museum, history,” Kiva 7, pp. 26-29.
David R. Wilcox, 2005 “Creating a Firm Foundation: The Early Years of the Arizona State Museum,” Journal of the Southwest 47:3, pp. 375-410.
Kirsten E. Winter, 1999 More than 100 Years of Digging: A History of the Arizona State Museum. M.A. thesis: University of Arizona.