About the Academy’s Collection

The Chicago Academy of Sciences was founded in 1857 from a desire to understand nature and science. To further this exploration, the study of real specimens was imperative. The institution’s founding members gathered their personal collections together, forming the basis of the museum collection and providing the foundation for scientific research at the Academy.

As our institution grew, so did our collection. Early in our institution’s history, the Academy conducted explorations throughout the Midwest region and beyond to the Great Smoky Mountains, Louisiana and the Gulf states, the American Southwest, and all the way to Alaska. Many specimens were collected by Academy scientists during the course of these field studies. Others were donated to the museum by people interested in the pursuit of scientific inquiry and education.

Today, the Chicago Academy of Sciences / Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum (CAS/PNNM) continues the charge to study local ecosystems and educate our visitors about the natural landscape of the Chicago Wilderness region. Focusing on the Midwest allows us to more fully understand the intricacies of the environment and the role we play in nature. Our collection provides learning opportunities for researchers and the general public and serves as a repository for the preservation of knowledge about the natural world. The collection gives us a window into the past, helps us to understand better what we see today, and aids us in planning for the future.

Collections are Preserved and Used

Collections are central to the very philosophy of museums. The use of real objects in exhibits and education adds credibility to subject matter and often brings visitors in contact with things they might otherwise never have the opportunity to see firsthand. As a research and educational institution, CAS/PNNM works to understand the region’s natural environments, such as the prairie ecosystem. The scientific specimens that compose our permanent collection serve as a library of the natural world and provide over 150 years worth of baseline data for biodiversity research. Scientists utilize museum collections to understand how ecosystems function, what plants and animals live in different areas, and how these species interact and support each other. They use collections to track invasive species and to gather data about changes in a region over time. Photographic images in the collections document local environments and animals in their natural habitats that can supplement studies examining how environments change over time. In our archives, original documents with first-hand field observations provide primary source material vital to scientific and historic research.

The collections are also utilized by CAS/PNNM to help fulfill our mission to engage and educate our visitors about urban nature. Visitors can see specimens and artifacts from the collection on exhibit at the Nature Museum and some are used in educational programs.

Museum Collection Holdings

While the specific types of items within the museum collection holdings cover a broad range, the scope of the collection is focused on the natural sciences, particularly of the Midwest and Western Great Lakes region. The museum collection includes natural history specimens, paper archives, photography, artwork, and historical artifacts. We currently

have over 290,000 objects, 100,000 photographic images, and 500 linear feet of documents in our collection. Development of the collection is guided by our institutional mission and Collections Management Policy, both of which are approved by the Board of Trustees.

In 2008, we began an enormous effort to inventory and digital catalogue our collections, a project that received support from the Institute of Museum and Library Services and the Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation. As a direct result of the Collections Inventory Project, we completed a full inventory of our natural history and cultural collections (all of our “objects”) at the end of August 2012. Knowing what we have in our collection will improve our ability to manage and care for these materials, and greatly expand their accessibility to internal and external users. We continue to organize and process the archives and catalogue the photography collection. In July 2015, we began implementation of our new collections management system, Arctos.

The collections facility also has a natural history library on-site. These references are being catalogued under the Dewey Decimal system and uploaded into our digital catalogue, LibraryThing. This is a non-lending library that is available to staff and visiting researchers.