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Museum History

The current collection owes its beginnings to the founder of our college, Matthew Vassar. The initial 'cabinet,' or collection was relatively small, but growth was anticipated, and a small amount of money was given to the museum each year for that purpose. The original geological specimens were part of a larger natural history collection, including many biological specimens. The collection increased in value rapidly. The first Vassar College catalogue (1865) stated that:

"The Cabinet of Mineralogy and Geology was procured and arranged expressly for the College by an experienced and skillful collector - Professor H.H.Ward, of Rochester - at a cost of more than twelve thousand dollars. It has received marked commendation from competent judges for its scientific completeness and symmetry; and Professors Dana and Hall have pronounced it, in selection, arrangement, and the manner of exhibition, "unsurpassed by any cabinet they are acquainted with, either in this country or in Europe." Measures are taken to provide for the College a select Museum of Natural History. The preparation of specimens has commenced and is in rapid progress; and around the nucleus thus formed, a collection of steadily increasing value will be made, under the experienced hand of the Professor in that Department."

The museum quickly became crowded, and was moved into Avery Hall, previously used as the riding school. The 1896 Souvenir stated that "Until better accommodation can be afforded, the variety and value of the collections must remain to a large degree unappreciated." Eventually, even this space became crowded. The geology and biology collections were then separated, biology was placed in New England Building and geology went to Ely Hall, which is the current location. The biology collection was almost entirely sold off when Olmstead Hall was built, so the geology collection currently constitutes the only active natural history museum on campus. In 1984, Vassar College named the museum after professor A.Scott Warthin, a dedicated teacher who taught in the Geology department from 1929-1969.

Many people have cared for and expanded our collection over the past 130 years, giving it significant historical value. One of the more famous purchases was made in 1862, when Henry A. Ward sold his very first collection of fossils to Vassar College. The Ward collection was Vassar's first specimen collection, and can be considered the beginning of the museum. W.B.Dwight, professor of geology from 1878-1906, made significant contributions to the fossil collection. His collection of fossils from the Wappinger Group was quite comprehensive. Museum records state that: "Dwight was so thorough that later collectors have been able to add little to his discoveries." Over the years, his collection has dispersed a fair bit, some specimens were relocated at other museums, while most of his type specimens are in Washington. Many specimens from South America were brought to the museum by Professor James Orton, who taught at Vassar from 1869-1877. Several mineralogical specimens were donated by G.F.Kunz, president of Tiffany and Co. in the early 1900's. These are just a few examples of the high quality and historical value of the specimens of the A.Scott Warthin Jr. Geological Museum of Vassar College.