San Diego Natural History Museum--Your Nature ConnectionHistory of the Museum

Charles Russell Orcutt (1864-1929)

Eponymous Species

Creation of a Museum

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specimen of Chorizanthe orcuttiana
Chorizanthe orcuttiana - from SDNHM herbarium

specimen of Lupinus concinnus ssp. orcuttii
Lupinus concinnus ssp. orcuttii from SDNHM herbarium

Creation of a Museum

The birth of an idea of a Natural History Museum in San Diego began in two ways: in the pages of the West American Scientist and at the meetings of the San Diego Society of Natural History.

In April 1888, Orcutt published in the West American Scientist a prospectus for an institute he called the West American Museum. The article contained a description of his ideas, ranging from what was to be collected to how it was to be organized. He envisioned an institute that would display specimens not only from the San Diego region but the entire west coast of the North American continent, representing nature, history and science. The plan was for an institute to be run by many individuals, or as Orcutt called it 'the work of many hands', who would take pride and care in the collections, making sure each specimen would be preserved correctly. He wanted this to be the grandest museum in the United States, even more so than the United States National Museum of the time.

Orcutt proposed to raise funding for the museum by asking individuals to join a museum organization. Membership fees ranged from $1.00 to $100 or prospective members could donate materials or services. This Museum Association was also to secure the land and all materials used for the proposed institution. Members of the SDSNH were beginning to question Orcutt's unrealistic approaches to raising money for such a grand institution. Charles Orcutt's desire to control the organization of the museum was greeted with silence by members of the SDSNH. In 1887, when Ephraim Moses donated a bush-covered lot on 6th Avenue, Orcutt saw this as an early sign that his project was going to be successful. However to Orcutt's dismay the land donated was not used for his museum at all.

He decided that the next best thing to do would be to donate the entirety of his collection to the San Diego Society of Natural History, hoping that eventually a museum could be built to house it. During this time Orcutt was the curator and librarian of his collection, which was stored at his residence. He also became very protective of the collection and wanted complete and total control over it. In a letter written to the Directors of the San Diego Society of Natural History in 1888, Orcutt stated that he was the only one who could "overhaul, label and catalogue" the items in his collection until a more suitable, permanent location was established. It did not help matters much that he was still contributing to the ever-growing collection and wanted unlimited access to any items he needed for personal use and study. Orcutt agreed to the donation of his collection under the terms of the Orcutt Deed and Trust. The debate as to how the deed was to be finalized was discussed via correspondence from 1920-1922. The Orcutt Deed and Trust was not formalized until 1928.

According to the correspondence found in the archives of the San Diego Natural History Museum Library, there was much disagreement between Orcutt and the other members of the society. Orcutt seemed unable to distinguish between his own collections and those that belonged to the society. This was due to Orcutt's idea that he could still sell the items he donated from his collection to interested buyers. Since he was selling items from his own collection, many members felt that the value of his collection was rapidly decreasing.

On December 18,1920, the idea of a natural history museum in San Diego became a reality. This was due in part to a generous donation by Ellen Browning Scripps that allowed the society to move their collections to the Foreign Arts Building in Balboa Park. Orcutt, who had first proposed a museum in 1888, had no involvement in the matter. After Orcutt's death, members of the society decided to relocate what had been donated to the museum. It was noted in the June issue of Desert Magazine in 1930, that the museum had acquired the entire Orcutt library. "This collection of books, pamphlets, catalogs, photographs and magazines, comprises more than five tons of material." Once the inventory and cataloging was complete, Mr. Clinton Abbott, the Director of the Museum at the time, kept the publications he felt would be most useful to the Natural History Museum. The Orcutt library covered the fields of: entomology, botany, herpetology, mineralogy, and similar sciences. It is considered to be a very valuable collection.