Located on the University of Alabama (UA) campus, the Alabama Museum of Natural History is one of the state's main repositories for fossils, human artifacts, photographs, and biological specimens. It also houses the Hodges meteorite, the only known object from outer space to have ever hit a human being. Founded even before the university opened in 1831, it is the oldest museum in Alabama.
During the eighteenth century, cities such as Philadelphia, Charleston, and New York established natural history museums, which, to educated classes of the day, seemed a cultural obligation. As the frontier receded and Alabama was settled, four unique individuals left their marks on the museum in Tuscaloosa to fulfill that obligation.
Prior to the university's opening in 1831, William McMillan, a volunteer librarian, began to accumulate books and established a natural history cabinet. He lobbied the board of trustees for the position of librarian (although there was as yet no library) and proposed that he create and keep a natural history collection as well. By sheer force of personality and persistence, he eventually won the board over. McMillan then corresponded with scientists and educators all over the world and within a few years had established a respectable collection of thousands of rocks, minerals, fossils, bones, and mounted specimens of birds and other animals. It is not clear where the collection was housed, it is probable that it was in the Rotunda of the UA library. McMillan left the position after a few years, but his collection of curiosities remained.
In 1847, Michael Tuomey accepted the university's new professorship in geology, mineralogy, and agricultural chemistry. A trained engineer and practicing geologist, Tuomey agreed to survey the natural resources of the state and was formally appointed the first state geologist by the Alabama legislature in 1848. He added to McMillan's collection, establishing it as both the university and the Geologic Survey of Alabama's (GSA) collection. (This dual affiliation lasted until the mid-1960s and persists as a close cooperative arrangement between the present museum and the GSA.) Tuomey died in 1857, and the state, distracted by the growing secession crisis, did not replace him. In April 1865, Union forces burned most of the university, including the library and much of the natural history collection in the Rotunda. That summer, Eugene Allen Smith, who was preparing to begin graduate studies in Europe, passed through Tuscaloosa and reported rescuing specimens, presumably rocks and fossils, not destroyed in the fire.
In 1871, Smith was appointed professor of agricultural chemistry and mineralogy at the university, a job he would hold for 56 years. Although Smith's contract with the university called for him to survey the natural resources of the state, he also petitioned and won over the state legislature, earning an appointment as state geologist and an appropriation for equipment. Smith immediately began to rebuild the university's collection, both for his geological research and for the general public. Having seen such collections in Europe, he was determined that Alabama would have one as well. By the 1880s his office and museum were in the basement of Woods Hall and later on the ground floor of Garland Hall. As early as 1884, he was considering ideas and architectural examples for a proposed museum building, which became a reality in 1910 and was dedicated as Smith Hall in his honor by the university trustees. There, the official Alabama Museum of Natural History and the Geological Survey, both still headed by Smith, housed significant collections of rocks, fossils, plants, and animals.
When Smith died in 1927, the care of the museum passed to his handpicked successor, Walter B. Jones, also a geologist. Jones had numerous interests besides geology, and it was under his tenure that the museum began adding a strong archaeological component to its collections. Jones mortgaged his home to purchase portions of what is now Moundville Archaeological Park at the beginning of the Great Depression and was later reimbursed by the museum's Board of Regents. He later developed Moundville Archaeological Park with the assistance of the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Works Progress Administration, and the National Park Service. In 1929, Jones hired archaeologist David L. DeJarnette, who conducted major excavations at Moundville and trained a whole generation of Alabama archaeologists as a professor in the university's anthropology department. Jones also established many popular and professional publications published by both the museum and the GSA, a service the institutions continue to provide. In addition, Jones had a strong interest in cave exploration and in paleontology, important activities supported by the museum during the 1930s and 1940s.
In the early 1960s, as Jones was looking toward retirement, the GSA was on its way to becoming a separate state agency. Jones had been criticized by the legislature for maintaining a natural history museum on the UA campus and for operating the Moundville park without legislative approval. Therefore, to keep these important public institutions funded and in operation, he facilitated the transfer of Moundville and the natural history collections to the University of Alabama, where they remain under the name of the Alabama Museum of Natural History.
The exhibits and offices of the Alabama Museum of Natural History are still located in Smith Hall, though the scientific study
collections are housed in a state-of-the-art collections facility, Mary Harmon Bryant Hall. The exhibits include Alabama Fossils,
including a huge fossil from Basilosaurus (a prehistoric whale and the official state fossil), rocks and minerals, and the Hodges meteorite, the only meteorite authenticated
to have struck a human being. The Smith Hall facility also sponsors regular outdoor programs for the public. Archaeological
exhibits are mostly housed at the Museum's 314-acre Moundville Archaeological Park. The David L. DeJarnette Archaeological
Laboratory at Moundville is also the state archaeological repository. The Jones Archaeological Museum is currently undergoing
a multi-million dollar enlargement and renovation.
Blitz, John. Moundville. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2008.
Hall, John C., and Frances Osborn Robb. "Eugene Allen Smith and the Geological Survey of Alabama." Alabama Heritage 33 (Summer 1994):
Knight, Vernon James, and Vincas P. Steponaitis. Archaeology of the Moundville Chiefdom. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1998.
John C. Hall
University of Alabama
Published November 6, 2008
Last updated September 12, 2014