Under One Roof
In a terse piece of legislation, the General Assembly creates the North Carolina State Museum, combining the collections of State Geologist Washington Caruthers Kerr (rocks, minerals, fossils, and woods) and Commissioner of Agriculture Col. Leonidas LaFayette Polk (agricultural products) under one roof. One year later, the Brimleys arrive and begin making their living by collecting bird skins and eggs for the wealthy men of the city.
In 1884, the Department of Agriculture contracts H. H. to create exhibits of game fishes and waterfowl to lure well-heeled sportsmen to the state. His displays are prizewinners at the N.C. Centennial Expo, and he is hired as the first full-time curator of the State Museum. Later he becomes its first director.
H. H. continues his outstanding work when he articulates and exhibits the skeleton of Mayflower—a 50-foot right whale taken near Shackleford Banks. The specimen marks the beginning of the Museum’s mammal collection. He also constructs an exhibit showing opossums in their natural habitat—one of the first of its kind in the Southeast.
H. H. and others found the Audubon Society of North Carolina. They draft the state’s first wildlife and conservation bill and encourage its adoption by the N.C. General Assembly in 1903. H. H. uses a stereopticon to present talks on farming and tourism.
The Museum receives an 18-inch-thick cross-section of a bald cypress log from a N.C. swamp. Brimley estimates the age of the tree to be more than 900 years old; in other words, “when Columbus discovered America, it was large enough to have been made into a good sized dug-out canoe.” The item attracted the attention of foresters across the country. In 1919, the Brimleys and T. Gilbert Pearson write Birds of North Carolina, one of the South’s first state bird books.
A 55-foot long, 55-ton adult sperm whale washes ashore in Wrightsville in 1928. H. H. overcomes numerous obstacles to procure the whale, nicknamed Trouble (PDF), and prepare the skeleton for display. He calls it “the most outstanding and valuable individual specimen the Museum has ever secured.” Trouble’s image later inspires the Museum’s logo. Outreach efforts continue as H. H. delivers the Museum’s first slide lectures to the public, and participates in weekly natural history programs on WPTF radio.
New Museum Director Harry Davis, alongside Director Emeritus H. H., leads the archeological development of Town Creek Indian Mound in Montgomery County, now a state Historic Site. The Museum installs its first interactive exhibit, a specimen of flexible sandstone that visitors flex by turning a crank. C. S. accounts for more than 9,600 insect species in his 1938 book, The Insects of North Carolina.
Davis serves the country during World War II, helping locate and identify natural resources vital to the war effort. Specimens such as bauxite, mica, chromite, and olivine are later featured as minerals of wartime importance in a geological exhibit. Museum circulars educate the public about topics from “Important Honey Plants of NC” to “Some Common Harmless Snakes of NC.” The Brimley brothers die within three months of each other in 1946, having shaped the state’s collections and public perceptions through six decades of great change.
Following World War II, cell biology and biochemistry become the focus of biological research, and universities across the country begin transferring their natural history collections to research museums. The influx of specimens quickly outgrows Museum confines, forcing collections into nooks and crannies of staff basements, labs, and even a former ballroom.