The Museum Collections
The University has had a natural history museum since its founding. In January 1831, the Board of Trustees hired a collector of natural history specimens, William McMillan, who also served as curator and the first University librarian. McMillan set about his task with great enthusiasm, and by the end of 1831, the collection, housed in the University’s rotunda, consisted of thirteen quadrupeds, one hundred thirteen mounted specimens of birds, thirty five species of insects, five reptiles, and sixteen fishes. The new curator also assembled a large collection of fossils, minerals, and shells, many through exchanges with European museums.
The most important antebellum collections were amassed in the 1840s and 1850s by Michael Tuomey, professor of mineralogy and geology, agricultural chemist, and first State Geologist. Unfortunately, many of the natural history collections were destroyed by Union soldiers who went about torching the campus in 1865, seven days before the end of the Civil War. The present collections date from 1873, when Eugene Allen Smith, an instructor of geology, was appointed as the director of the Geological Survey. [Nature South: The Magazine of the Alabama Museum of Natural History. Volume 4, Number 2.]
Invertebrate Paleontology Collection
The paleontology collections were begun by Michael J. Tuomey in the mid 1800s and were used extensively for teaching purposes. Most of the collection was presumably lost during the Civil War when federal troops destroyed the University of Alabama campus. Only a few of Tuomey’s original “cabinet” specimens survive in the collections of the Alabama Museum of Natural History and the Geological Survey of Alabama.
In the 1870s, as professor and state geologist, Eugene Allen Smith, directed students on field trips throughout the state where they collected many new specimens and met persons who also contributed to the collections.
The Invertebrate Paleontology Collection is estimated to contain over 20,000 lots of specimens. Specimens are mainly from the Oligocene, Eocene, and Cretaceous deposits of Alabama. The Paleogene (Eocene plus Oligocene) deposits in Alabama are considered to be among the best in the world. The collection is currently being inventoried and entered into the collections database.
Vertebrate Paleontology Collection
The Vertebrate Paleontology Collection consists of over 5000 catalogued items, most of which consist of individual specimens. The collection contains items from the Pennsylvanian, Cretaceous and Paleogene deposits of Alabama, but focuses primarily on Cretaceous and Eocene marine formations.
The vertebrate collections have strong representation of Cretaceous mosasaurs, Eocene whales, and Pennsylvanian trackways from the Union Chapel Mine trackway site.
The Paleobotany Collection consists of over 100 specimens, mostly from the Pennsylvanian and Cretaceous of Alabama, as well as petrified wood from Arizona.
The Mammal Collection is a result of research efforts in Alabama that span almost 110 years. In the mid- to late-1800s the first collections were begun from south central Alabama by Dr. William C. Avery who also assembled the Ornithology Collection. Field work slowed during the Depression and World War II, but accelerated in the mid-1940s when Dr. Ralph Chermock came to Tuscaloosa to serve as Professor of Biology at the University and later as Museum Director and Chief of the Environmental Division of the Geological Survey of Alabama. Under his leadership and through the efforts of his graduate students, the taxonomy, ecology, and distribution of many Alabama mammals have been determined.
More than three thousand skins and skulls have been catalogued, including nine orders and twenty-two families of the known sixty-seven species of Alabama mammals, along with many specimens from other states and several foreign countries. By studying this important storehouse of information, scientists are able to make an inventory of distribution and habitat trends of mammals. Research in this collection makes it possible to develop management strategies essential to protect our native Alabama mammals. Specimens are available by loan to qualified scientists.
H.P. Löding, a florist from Mobile, was an enthusiastic amateur naturalist, nationally known authority on beetles, and supporter of the Museum during the 1920’s and 30’s. Löding made regular summer excursions, known as “beetle trips”, with museum curators during the 1930’s in search of scientific specimens. Among the group were Dr. Walter B. Jones, Dr. T.S. Van Aller, and Frank Cobb who camped out for weeks and traveled all over Alabama and neighboring states. Löding’s collections, curated and enlarged by Dr. Earle Cross, are the basis of the Museum’s present insect collections.
Dr. Ralph L. Chermock, who was a Professor of Biology and the first curator of the museum after it was moved to the University from the Geological Survey in 1961, was also was important the Museum’s insect collections. Chermock was a lepidopterist (a butterfly specialist) and was assisted by his wife, Ottilie Chermock. The Chermocks’ collection of an estimated thirty thousand butterfly specimens is now belong to the Museum. Dr. Chermock and his wife prepared many of the specimens and were also primarily responsible for founding the Museum’s mammal and herpetological collections, as well as for enlarging the ornithological collection.
The Aquatic Insect Collection is a joint effort with the Department of Biology’s Aquatic Biology Program. Several people, notably, Professor Art Benke, Professor G. Milton Ward, and Steven Harris of the Alabama Geological Survey, have contributed to this collection. It is primarily made up of immature or larval insects stored in thousands of small vials. These specimens are important to the ecology of streams and wetlands.
Dr. G. Milton Ward, Professor of Biology, is the Curator of Entomology.
The University’s Rocks and Minerals Collection was started by Michael Tuomey, Alabama’s first State Geologist, around 1847. Portions of Tuomey’s mineral collection survived the burning of the University in 1865 and are included in the present collection started by State Geologist Eugene Allen Smith in 1873.
The collection is of great historical importance because of the rarity of many of the specimens that have been collected or donated through the years. Two collections are of special significance: one is the fine collection donated to the Museum by Hubert W. Goings in 1969; the other is the 1949 Ed Leigh McMillan quartz collection, containing more than three thousand specimens from Crystal Mountain, Arkansas.
The mineral collection contains an estimated fifteen thousand specimens from all over the world. Some of these specimens are in powder form, while other specimens are massive and weigh hundreds of pounds.
Dr. Gary W. Hooks, Professor Emeritus of Geological Sciences, is Curator of Geology.
The Ethnology Collection contains about one thousand six hundred artifacts crafted by peoples from all over the world, with a strong representation from Southwest Pacific and Australia. Particularly noteworthy is the Michael Leahy materials from early 20th century New Guinea. The Ethnology Collection also contains some Caribbean and Amazonian materials. The collection is presently undergoing inventory and computerization by museum staff and volunteers so that it may be accessed and used by researchers.
Dr. Virginia S. Wimberly, Assistant Professor of Clothing, Textiles, and Interior Design, is Assistant Curator of Ethnology.
The History Collection, begun in 1985, is comprised of about fourteen thousand items, many from the Alan Blake Collection. Particular strengths of the Blake collection include bottles, stoneware jugs, hand tools, and telegraph insulators. The History Collection also includes items associated with the history of Alabama’s natural resources, such as agriculture, turpentining, lumbering, mining, pottery, and iron making.
Also included in the collection are a number of artifacts that belonged to Eugene Allen Smith which are of great significance to the history of the Museum. Smith was the second State Geologist of Alabama, and the first Director of the Alabama Museum of Natural History.
Dr. Virginia S. Wimberly, Assistant Professor of Clothing, Textiles, and Interior Design, is Assistant Curator of History.
The Photograph Collection contains approximately twenty thousand photographs and photograph negatives that were taken mostly during the 1930’s and 1940’s. Many of these photographs were taken at archaeological digs at Moundville, the Tennessee Valley, and other sites in Alabama and the Southeast. Key figures in the development of the collection include Walter B. Jones and Roland Harper.
Human Osteology Collection
The Alabama Museum of Natural History houses and curates an extensive collection of human skeletal remains from prehistoric Alabama. These remains excavated in the early part of the 20th century were recovered in archaeological excavations at the famous site of Moundville and through salvage excavations by Tennessee Valley Authority archaeologists during their creation of the Pickwick Landing Dam and Basin, Wheeler Dam, and the Guntersville Dam and Basin. Some notable people who have worked with the collection include Charles E. Snow, Marshall T. Newman, Kenneth R. Turner, Patricia S. Bridges, and Mary Lucas Powell.
Dr. Keith Jacobi is Associate Curator of Human Osteology.
Treasures From the Collections
On a cold November day in 1954 in Sylacauga, Alabama, a flaming meteorite fell out of the sky, crashed through the roof of the house, and struck Mrs. Ann Hodges as she napped on the couch. Mrs. Hodges suffered only a bruised leg and became an instant celebrity as the only documented instance of a human to have been struck by a meteorite.
Three hundred million years ago, during the Age of Coal, an ancient amphibian called a Cincosaurus walked through a muddy swamp in what is now Walker County, Alabama. This animal left fossil footprints, now on display in the museum, which are rare evidence of vertebrates in the Coal Age.
When dinosaurs roamed the earth, a fierce swimming lizard called Mosasaur ruled the seas that covered much of ancient Alabama. The museum has the largest collection of Mosasaur material in Alabama.
Large mineral specimens from the collection include calcite, pegmatite, celestite, and kyanite-weighing up to 700 pounds. Many of these minerals are from old mines and other localities which are now exhausted and abandoned.
UA Museums Collections Department
Phone: (205)348-0534 / (205)348-5625
University of Alabama Museums
Museums Collections Department
Tuscaloosa, AL 35487
Director of Museums Collections (205) 348-0534 – vacant
Collections Assistant (205) 348-5625 – vacant
Curator of Vertebrate Paleontology (205) 348-7425 – Dr. Dana J. Ehret firstname.lastname@example.org
Curator of Human Osteology (205) 348-0338 – Dr. Keith Jacobi email@example.com