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Museums are essential public educational centers that help us remember our history, but some are even historical in and of themselves. Most of these early institutions are still around to teach you all about monumental events, artistic movements, prehistoric animals, and even more. Here are the oldest museums in America.
The oldest museums in America include Charleston Museum, which predates the United States becoming a country, Peabody Essex Museum, and the New-York Historical Society Museum. Some of these long-standing institutions are no longer operating, but most are still accessible to the public.
Tons of these institutions have become national landmarks, housed former presidents, or even acted as a refuge during wars. Keep reading to learn all about the earliest museums in America, then add them to your list of places you must visit in your lifetime. Maybe we’ll see you there!
What are the Oldest Museums in America?
Charleston Museum: 1773
If you’re looking for a true recollection of American history, take a trip down to South Carolina and visit the Charleston Museum. Not only does this institution exhibit American history, but it’s also a part of it! That’s right — Charleston is the oldest museum in the United States.
Charleston has a few historic homes under its name — one being the Heyward-Washington House which homed America’s first president George Washington circa 1791.
Plus, only at the Charleston Museum can you find the prehistoric Pelagornis fossil — the largest flying bird ever known!
However, the Charleston Museum isn’t just focused on preserving material historical artifacts. This South Carolina institution understands the importance of protecting the habitats around us as well. That’s why their establishment also includes The Dill Sanctuary: a wildlife reserve home to an ensemble of wild birds.
The site also includes two African American cemeteries, 8,000 years of archeological records, and acts as a research center.
Despite its early roots in American soil, the Charleston does not hold the title of the longest operating museum in the United States. This institution was founded right before the American Revolution but had to shut its doors throughout the Civil War temporarily. Regardless, it’s definitely worth heading to the South Carolina Lowcountry for.
Peabody Essex Museum: 1799
Though the Peabody Essex Museum didn’t have its own building until 1825, the organization that established PEM has been operating since 1799.
PEM was founded by the East India Marine Society — a group of Salem, Massachusetts sailors who had journeyed past Cape Horn in Chile or Cape of Good Hope in South Africa. One of the society’s goals was to eventually establish an institution filled with “natural and artificial curiosities.”
Members of the East India Marine Society collected artifacts from cross-continental travels to display in the museum.
A quarter-century later, the society moved to the East India Marine Hall and later became the Peabody Academy of Science. A few name changes and a merger with the Essex Institute before transitioning into the Peabody Essex Museum.
These days, PEM is home to more than a million artistic and cultural pieces from around the globe and is considered the oldest continually collecting and operating museum in America. It’s only onwards and upwards for the Peabody Essex Museum.
New-York Historical Society Museum: 1804
Without a doubt, you know about the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the American Museum of Natural History. Still, there’s another institution you should hit up while you’re in the Big Apple that predates both of those by almost 70 years— the New-York Historical Society Museum.
In New York City, this oldest museum houses artworks from Rembrandt Peale, Thomas Cole, and John James Audubon. These days, the museum features rotating exhibits on slavery throughout America’s founding, portraits of NYC through the eras, and women’s roles in politics, among many others.
The New-York Historical Society Museum has also curated over a dozen traveling exhibits, primarily centering influential locals and moments in the city’s past. Even if you can’t get to the Empire State, a display may pop up near you!
Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts: 1805
The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts was founded more than 200 years ago by artists for artists. It’s more than just a museum — this institution combines exhibitions with education.
PAFA is America’s first museum that’s also a school for the fine arts. The renowned institution offers study in printmaking, painting, sculpture, drawing, and illustration in various degree programs. One offering is a crossover with the University of Pennsylvania’s BFA schooling.
In the galleries, you can find work from artists such as Thomas Eakins, Cecilia Beaux, and Raymond Saunders. PAFA also proudly displays pieces from alumni within its collections.
PAFA has been recognized as a National Historic Landmark since May of 1975.
Bowdoin Museum of Art: 1811
Much like PAFA, the Bowdoin Museum of Art is one of the first collegiates with an art collection in the United States. Bowdoin’s educational programs center around interdisciplinary studies— so it only makes sense to have a museum on site.
The Walker Art Building — Bowdoin’s most iconic infrastructure — was erect in 1894 and now holds a spot on the National Register of Historic Places. The building’s Renaissance-inspired facade, complete with a pair of protective lion statues that guard the entrance, makes this destination a landmark.
Nowadays, the Bowdoin College Museum of Art showcases over 20,000 cross-cultural pieces from various periods in multiple mediums.
The Peale Center: 1814
Museums established in the early 19th century have survived many monumental moments in American history. The Peale Center in Baltimore, Maryland, is no different.
Rembrandt Peale created the center: a member of what is considered the first family of American artists.
Just weeks after the institution opened its doors, the city found itself in tumultuous times. Baltimore became a battleground in the War of 1812. Rembrandt and his family heard the
British had set Washington ablaze and feared troops would do the same to Baltimore — including their new museum.
The Peales decided to seek refuge overnight in the center, optimistic that the British may believe this was their home and show mercy to the family. Luckily, the Peale Center survived the war.
However, that wasn’t the end of the story. The Peale closed its doors in 1829, and the building transformed into Baltimore’s City Hall, then schoolhouses, and even a retail space.
Eventually, the building faced demolition during the Depression, but citizens banded together to revive the institution, and it became the Municipal Museum of the City of Baltimore.
Fast forward 66 years to 1997, and the museum finally closed its doors, but its artifacts are still accessible via the Maryland Historical Society.
The Peale doesn’t only contain history — it is historical in and of itself.
The Rotunda: 1818
New York City’s Rotunda may not be considered an actual museum, but its story is like none other, deeming it worthy of a spot on this list.
If you’ve ever visited The Met — or are an art history aficionado — you may have stumbled across a painting by John Vanderlyn titled Panoramic View of the Palace and Gardens of Versailles.
Since panoramas require a circular space to correctly display the 360° view, Vanderlyn designed a rotunda near New York’s City Hall. This odd gallery was intended for one artist only: Vanderlyn.
Much to his dismay, Vanderlyn hadn’t finished his piece by the date the Rotunda was to open. Rather than waiting for Vanderlyn to complete his painting, the Rotunda displayed a panorama by an Irish artist named Robert Baker.
The Rotunda was later converted to a small courthouse before the New York Gallery of the Fine Arts took it over only to return to municipal government usage once again.
If you’d like to make a stop at this tiny piece of history — which some consider the first art museum in New York — you’re unfortunately out of luck. The Rotunda was eventually torn down in 1870: the same year The Met was established.
If you need a bit more information on American museums before planning a trip to visit the oldest ones, check out these fantastic resources:
Don’t forget to also access institutions’ websites directly for even more excellent information.
While America’s oldest museums may not all be household names, they’re undoubtedly important destinations that have seen history happen in front of them. Next time you’re planning a trip, consider visiting Peabody Essex Museum, the Bowdoin Museum of Art, or the Charleston Museum.