1857 – 1893: The First Museum in the West
Founded in 1857, the Chicago Academy of Sciences was founded by nature aficionados and amateur scientists seeking a space where they could study and share the specimens they collected. It was citizen science in action before the term was even invented! In addition to being the first private scientific museum founded in Chicago, the Academy became Chicago’s first public museum when it opened its doors to all visitors in 1869. This action would shape the institution’s educational focus and commitment as a community museum.
Under the guidance of early naturalists such as Robert Kennicott and William Stimpson, the Academy’s scientific collection grew exponentially in both size and importance. In fact, by 1870 the Academy had the fourth largest natural history museum collection in the entire nation.
The Great Fire of 1871 devastated both the city of Chicago and the Academy. The Academy’s building and holdings were decimated, including materials housed in a special “fireproof” vault. Despite this heavy blow, the Academy’s naturalists and scientists began rebuilding the collection under the direction of Academy Director and malacologist William Stimpson, Academy President (and one of the original founders) Dr. Edmund Andrews, and Academy Secretary Dr. Jacob W. Velie.
1894 – 1998: A Fresh Start in Lincoln Park
The Chicago Academy of Sciences’ search for a new, more permanent home was realized with an offer from Chicago pioneer and businessman Matthew Laflin in 1892. Laflin offered to provide 75% of the funds towards the construction of a new building in Lincoln Park, while the remaining 25% came from the Lincoln Park Board of Commissioners. The cornerstone of the building was laid on October 10, 1893, and the building itself, known as the Matthew Laflin Memorial Building, officially opened on October 31, 1894.
For 100 years, the Laflin Building was the home of the Academy. There, natural history sprang to life through richly detailed dioramas filled with local flora and fauna. Public lectures and an accessible museum collection were staples of the flourishing Academy. In its new home, the collection was not only rebuilt, but became the definitive vehicle to study the natural history of Chicago and the region. It also became an invaluable resources for area educators.
1999 – Present: The Urban Gateway to Nature and Science
As the 20th Century came to a close, the Chicago Academy of Sciences began initiating plans to expand the Laflin Building and to provide more room for exhibitions, collections storage, and office space. At the same time, the Lincoln Park Zoo also began looking to expand their operations. The Chicago Park District offered the Academy the opportunity to build a new museum building on the site of the Park District’s North Shops Maintenance Facilities in exchange for transferring the Academy’s Laflin Building to the Lincoln Park Zoo. In 1997, the Academy broke ground for its new building in Lincoln Park. In recognition of a significant donation given to the Academy by Dick and Peggy Notebaert, the building was named the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum.
Chicago’s explosion of urban growth at this time ground away the natural landscape and local flora and fauna, making it easy for residents to lose their connection to nature. People were starving for an authentic connection to the natural world and a place in our urban area where they could experience the sights, sounds, and smells of nature. The official opening of the Academy’s Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum on October 23, 1999 filled this void. Known for its iconic Judy Istock Butterfly Haven and providing more hands-on science instruction than any other museum in Chicago, the Nature Museum has become one of the city’s most attended institutions. The Nature Museum has given visitors the opportunity to create an authentic connection to nature, and has provided the Academy with a new opportunity to build on its legacy of hands-on science education, scientific research, and citizen/community science.