Astronomy Hall for American Museum of Natural History
The Astronomy Hall will be “the celestial hub—so to speak—from which all the halls containing terrestrial exhibits will radiate.” –Howard Russell Butler
Howard Russell Butler had a number of overlapping careers, which coalesced in his work on the Astronomy Hall for the American Museum of Natural History. He was foremost an artist, but also a lawyer, a student of science, and a businessman. As artistic consultant to the American Museum of Natural History, in 1925 he designed what would have been the central feature of the museum—a seven-story hall, 126 feet in diameter, with four stories of exhibition space devoted to astronomical displays, capped by a planetarium and its dome. Ultimately, in part due to the economic crash of 1929, the museum chose to create the Hayden Planetarium instead of Butler’s central hall, but Butler’s ambitious vision reveals the significance both Butler and society in the 1920s placed on astronomical study for the public. Butler intended for visitors to start at the top floor and meander through the displays down to the first floor.
A cross section of what the completed Astronomy Hall would look like, showing its central location surrounded by the terrestrial exhibitions and the domed planetarium on the top floor, where a Zeiss Projector could reveal images of 4,500 stars as well as the sun, planets, and Milky Way.
“Sidereal Hall”—The fourth and fifth floors were called the “dark section” and were broken into four areas: the planetarium, twelve transparent screens for more projections, an ambulatory with solar eclipses, meteors, and geology, and, finally, a section containing Butler’s eclipse triptych.
The second and third floors surround a rotunda with a model of the universe. The third floor is akin to the education wing.
Each of the alcoves holds a globe: sidereal, terrestrial, solar, and lunar. The ambulatory contains sections for navigation, cosmogony, time and calendars, and lunar, each of which is an expansion upon the globes in the alcoves. The second floor ambulatory showcases astronomical instruments, portraits, and paintings.
The first floor contains two halls. The Aërolite Hall is dedicated to meteoric studies and displays. The Spectroscopic Hall showcases the Hale Heliostat, which reflects sun rays (and was used on eclipse expeditions), and the Foucault Pendulum, which demonstrates Earth’s rotation.
Science Education at the American Museum of Natural History in the Early Twentieth Century
Ingrid Ockert, Ph.D. Candidate, Department of the History of Science, Princeton University
The American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) held its first lectures for teachers in 1880.
Lecture at high school, 1916
By 1922, the AMNH had 869 nature study collections, available to most local schools. “There are two motor cars and a motor cycle to deliver slides and collections,” Science reported, “Each messenger visits from twenty to forty schools a day.”
AMNH courier, unknown
Lantern slides were a very popular learning tool for teachers. When lit from behind, these photographic glass plates cast a magnified projection. By 1926, the Museum had collected 80,000 colored plates.
Boy selecting slides, 1920
In 1924, the AMNH started a formal collaboration with the School Nature League. Together, they sponsored the creation of “nature rooms” at local schools.
Children in Nature Room, 1921
The AMNH distributed films to local classrooms. In 1929, 1,725,865, children and adults saw a motion picture from the AMNH.
Children wait to watch film at AMNH, 1927