Trailheads presents information and details about the exhibits, events and programs hosted by the historic sites and museums on PHMC's Pennsylvania Trails of History.
The Natural History Museum’s animal specimens include an elk and smaller mammals such as a racoon, a muskrat and a beaver. Photo by Kyle R. Weaver

The Natural History Museum’s animal specimens include an elk and smaller mammals such as a racoon, a muskrat and a beaver. Photo by Kyle R. Weaver

Charles Willson Peale’s Philadelphia Museum, although relatively short-lived, influenced the development of similar projects elsewhere. In 1827, the year Peale died, the Harmony Society at Economy in Pennsylvania opened one of the first natural history museums west of the Alleghenies. Like Peale’s museum, the Harmonist effort was largely exhausted by the middle of the 19th century, and its collections were dispersed. On March 22, 2002, however, a recreation of the Natural History Museum opened at Old Economy Village, reviving a key public aspect of the Harmony Society’s third and final home.

The Harmony Society, a Christian communal group, was formally incorporated in 1805, when founder George Rapp (1757–1847) and about 800 German farmers and craftspeople who had followed him to the U.S. were settled in Harmony, Butler County. The society left Pennsylvania in 1814 to start a new settlement in Indiana (also called Harmony and now known as New Harmony). In 1824 they returned to Pennsylvania, establishing themselves in Beaver County along the banks of the Ohio River. They called their town Oekonomie, but we know it today as Ambridge. The Harmonist buildings that became the property of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania in 1916 make up the historic site we now call Old Economy Village (also see “Old Economy Village: The Centennial of the First Site on the Pennsylvania Trails of History,” Winter 2016).

In 1826–27 the Harmonists constructed a two-story brick building next to the home of leader George Rapp. The upper floor, referred to as the Feast Hall, was used for communal meals on special feast days and for musical performances. The ground floor held fine arts and natural history collections, arranged as a museum for the education of Harmony Society members and the general public.

Dr. Johann Christoph Müller (1752–1845) was the society’s physician, music director, schoolteacher and museum manager. He worked with Rapp and his adopted son Frederick (1775–1834), who were interested in alchemy, to establish the museum, amassing the natural history collections through correspondence with collectors and other pioneering naturalists. According to a receipt in the exhibit, Frederick purchased the first collection of specimens in 1826 from collector J. W. Sturm. Like Peale, Müller used Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus’ classification system to organize and label the specimens on display. Some of the books he used as reference remain in the Old Economy Village collections.

The primary motivation for the Harmonist museum was to promote education and enlightenment. The Harmonists were always seeking to perfect themselves in preparation for the Second Coming of Christ. Learning about the workings of the natural world was considered a way to gain knowledge about God as creator. Opening the museum to the public was an important aspect of the Harmony Society’s ties to the secular world. Unlike many early museums, the Harmonist museum did not include “oddities” or fakes.

Johann Christoph Müller was a member of the Harmony Society for nearly 30 years, helping to establish the museum and serving as the community’s first physician. Old Economy Village

Johann Christoph Müller was a member of the Harmony Society for nearly 30 years, helping to establish the museum and serving as the community’s first physician. Old Economy Village

Müller directed the museum (and the society orchestra) until the schism of 1832, when he and about a third of the Harmony Society membership broke with George Rapp. They left Economy to follow the charismatic Count de Leon (1788–1834), who had convinced them that he was the Messiah. The group settled on the other side of the Ohio River in a town they called Phillipsburgh, now known as Monaca. After the schism, the museum continued in operation until 1850, when Pittsburgh businessman Benjamin Morris agreed to purchase the entire collection for $5,000 and started his own museum. When he was unable to pay the complete amount, the Harmony Society agreed to let him have the animal specimens but retained the mineral collections. Eventually these were sold to the University of Pittsburgh for $3,000.

For years, staff at Old Economy Village researched the natural history museum using Harmony Society records, correspondence and remnants of the museum in Old Economy’s collections. (This article is based on that research as it is reflected in the exhibit panels and the visitor guide for the exhibit.) Researchers drew on such evidence as the 1833 ledger, which shows income from the 10-cent admission fee charged to members of the public, and the writings of British author and traveler James Silk Buckingham, who visited Economy in 1839: “We accordingly visited the Museum . . . there are many specimens of native quadrupeds . . . birds, foreign and native . . . reptiles in abundance . . . fishes in great variety . . . and butterflies and insects in full proportion . . . minerals . . . an air pump and an electrical machine . . . Chinese drawings . . . American historical portraits . . . and some highly interesting religious subjects.”

Eventually, it was time to turn the research into reality. Funds were budgeted and the project was assigned to PHMC’s exhibit services contractor. I was involved in the project as contract manager. In the course of preparing this article, I reviewed email files to refresh my memory. The goal of this project was to recreate aspects of the original museum and other activities that took place in the building (such as orchestra rehearsals and performances) and to interpret the museum through traditional exhibit panels and casework.

The Feast Hall/Museum Building at Economy housed the Natural History Museum on the ground floor with a large communal gathering space on the floor above. Old Economy Village

The Feast Hall/Museum Building at Economy housed the Natural History Museum on the ground floor with a large communal gathering space on the floor above. Old Economy Village

The level of detail involved was astounding. Myriad decisions were made regarding finishes that took into account known historic materials, original appearance, conservation issues, security and the visitor experience. Numerous outside conservation professionals, in addition to PHMC’s in-house conservation staff at the time, were consulted on everything from period-appropriate mounts for butterflies to the reproduction of a glass disk for the static electricity machine. There is, for example, a seven-page conservator’s report outlining the various materials and components (such as foil lining, corks, marbled paper, insect pins) for reproducing one of Titian Ramsey Peale’s entomology display cases.

Some natural history specimens were already in PHMC collections, but not nearly enough to recreate the original exhibits. Multiple laws and governmental authorities had to be consulted regarding the acquisition of mammal, bird and reptile specimens. Staff and contractors worked with personnel from the Pennsylvania Game Commission, the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation & Natural Resources, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, and the Carnegie Museums. They learned more about international law than they ever expected to.

The spreadsheet used to track the status of specimen acquisitions runs some 200 lines, although I don’t believe we were successful in finding everything on the list. I did find a saved email announcing one milestone of the project: “The alligator, Fred, has arrived at OEV [from taxidermist in Louisiana]. The crate top was broken, but we made the delivery driver stay until we opened it and inspected him, Fred that is. He looks OK to me.” In addition to animal specimens, there were fossils, shells and minerals to be acquired, arranged and labeled in appropriate fashion using Linnaean classification.

Recreating the period look for the exhibit was an arduous task. Visual sources were scarce but included Charles Willson Peale’s self-portrait, The Artist in His Museum. Written descriptions of the Harmonist museum as well as others of the period were scoured for clues. Sources had to be found for appropriate lighting fixtures, specimen jars and other glassware. Exhibit cases were designed and redesigned. Tremendous energy was expended on getting it right. Even the stanchions used to keep visitors from touching the displays used period materials.

 

During the Natural History Museum installation at Old Economy in 2002, the alligator specimen was prepared for display by staff of PHMC’s Commonwealth Conservation Center. PHMC Bureau of Historic Sites & Musuems

During the Natural History Museum installation at Old Economy in 2002, the alligator specimen was prepared for display by staff of PHMC’s Commonwealth Conservation Center. PHMC Bureau of Historic Sites & Musuems

Visitors to Old Economy Village now start their tour of the historic buildings with the Harmonist museum. I think that Dr. Müller and George Rapp would be pleased.

For more information on hours and tours at Old Economy Village, visit oldeconomyvillage.org .

 

Amy Killpatrick Fox is a museum educator in PHMC’s Bureau of Historic Sites and Mu-seums. She writes a weekly blog also called Trailheads at patrailheads.blogspot.com.