The Harvard Museums of Science & Culture Celebrates Women’s History Month with the Online Exhibit, Women of the Museum, 1860–1920: Behind-the-Scenes at the Museum of Comparative Zoology

April 2, 2021

CAMBRIDGE, Mass., March 31, 2021— For the first time in the museum’s history, women who labored in the collections, offices, and labs of the Museum of Comparative Zoology are being revealed in a unique online exhibit that highlights the early history of the museum. It is curated by Reed Gochberg, Assistant Director of Studies and a Lecturer on History and Literature at Harvard University.

In the late nineteenth century, the museum hired women to serve as secretaries, assistants, librarians, and sometimes curators, but they were given minimal opportunity to advance. Nonetheless, women like Elizabeth Hodges Clark, Elizabeth Bangs Bryant, and Elvira Wood persevered diligently behind-the-scenes, gaining unparalleled expertise in what were previously thought to be men’s fields.

Clark’s responsibilities, for example, included fairly mundane tasks such as classifying marine specimens, unpacking the Blaschka glass flowers and invertebrates, and working as Alexander Agassiz’s personal secretary while he was director. However, Clark also frequently ran the museum when Agassiz was away.

Elizabeth Bangs Bryant worked closely with curators in entomology and was an expert on spiders. She was not paid a salary until the 1930s when the museum’s director finally promoted her to assistant curator of spiders. Elvira Wood was an expert on invertebrate paleontology and served as assistant curator of paleontology—the first woman to achieve this rank and title.
While not fully acknowledged in their time, the work of women like Clark, Bryant, and Wood, among others, was essential to the development of the museum as an internationally recognized center for research, teaching, and public education, paving the way for future colleagues to enter these renowned fields and publish their own research.

Through her careful research on the roles, lives, working conditions, and invisible labor of these women, 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 nineteenth- and early twentieth- century galleries and classrooms, as well as unique specimens from the museum’s collections.

About the Harvard Museum of Natural History
The Harvard Museum of Natural History is one of the four Harvard Museums of Science & Culture. With a mission to enhance public understanding and appreciation of the natural world and the human place in it, the museum draws on the University’s collections and research to present a historic and interdisciplinary exploration of science and nature. It is Harvard’s most- visited museum with more than 300,00 annual visitors.

The Harvard Museum of Natural History is located at 26 Oxford Street in Cambridge, Massachusetts, an eight-minute walk through historic Harvard Yard from the Harvard Square MBTA station. For general information on exhibits, public events, parking, and times for free visitation for Massachusetts residents, visit the website at hmnh.harvard.edu, or call 617-495-3045.

Media contact:
Bethany Carland-Adams
Public Relations Specialist
HARVARD MUSEUMS OF SCIENCE & CULTURE
26 Oxford Street, Cambridge, MA 02138
617 959 3481
bcarlandadams@hmsc.harvard.edu 
hmsc.harvard.edu

See also: Press Release