In an ongoing effort to place Monticello within the larger universe, Thomas Jefferson established a museum in his double-story Entrance Hall, complete with maps of the world, European paintings and sculptures, and examples of items from the New World.
The contents of Monticello's Entrance Hall also chronicled the birth of the young nation. Artwork — such as paintings of Biblical scenes — illustrated moral teachings, perhaps ones that Jefferson found essential in the development of the United States. Busts of the French thinkers, Voltaire and Turgot, held a prominent place in the room, just as these men did in influencing Jefferson's ideas about government. Busts of Hamilton and Jefferson, political adversaries, were placed together, but facing one another — Jefferson wryly explained that the two would be "opposed in death as in life." Guests at Monticello have found humor in the fact that Jefferson's own statue is significantly larger than Alexander Hamilton's. Jefferson also displayed an engraving of the "The Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776," and kept several printed facsimiles of the Declaration (as well as his own rough draft) in his home. Jefferson used these pieces to relate his first-hand experiences in crafting our democracy.
The Lewis and Clark Expedition was central to Jefferson's acquisition of his important collection of Native American objects. Jefferson showcased these artifacts, along with natural history specimens sent by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, in his Entrance Hall, called the "Indian Hall" by Jefferson himself. Placed among the other goods that Jefferson collected — European paintings and sculptures, works of art from eastern Indians, a model of an Egyptian pyramid, mastodon bones excavated by William Clark in Kentucky following the expedition, and maps of the vicinity and the world — the western items contributed to the mélange that Jefferson hoped would demonstrate to his family and visitors the diversity of the world beyond Monticello. His objective in creating his museum was to place himself and Monticello within the context of this larger world.
Before they left Fort Mandan in April 1805, Lewis and Clark packed up a shipment to send President Jefferson. It included Indian objects; animal skins, bones, and antlers; a live prairie dog, four magpies, and a grouse; and plant, soil, and mineral samples. The captains listed the contents on a packing list that they sent ahead of the shipment. The four boxes, two large trunks, and three cages arrived at the President's House in Washington in August while Jefferson was at Monticello; Étienne Lemaire, Jefferson's butler, wrote him that the shipment had come. Having eagerly anticipated its arrival, Jefferson sent instructions for unpacking and caring for the various articles.
When Jefferson returned to Washington from Monticello in early October 1805, he annotated the packing list, noting which items had come. Although we do not know the final destination of every object that arrived in Washington from Fort Mandan, Jefferson sent material from the shipment to at least three different places: the Peale Museum, the American Philosophical Society, and Monticello.
Jefferson sent a live prairie dog and magpie and some of the animal skins, skeletons, and horns to Charles Willson Peale, the Philadelphia artist and museum impresario, for the Peale Museum, his public gallery of art and natural history. Peale would also receive later donations directly from Lewis and Clark. Jefferson included with Peale's shipment plant, soil, and mineral specimens for the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia.
Jefferson sent a third group of the objects from Lewis and Clark's shipment to Monticello in March 1806. This included elk, deer, antelope, and mountain sheep horns; otter and weasel skins; Indian pipes, leggings, bows, arrows, pottery, and notably, a painted buffalo robe depicting a battle scene. Included in this shipment as well was an Indian map on a hide representing the Missouri River and its tributaries between the Platte and the Yellowstone Rivers, which was sent to Jefferson by General James Wilkinson, governor of the Louisiana Territory.
With the arrival of several boxes and barrels sent back by Lewis and Clark from their journey, Jefferson greatly expanded the representation of North America in his Entrance Hall museum with a dramatic display of Native American artifacts and animal skins, horns, and bones. Unfortunately, the fate of Jefferson's collection of Native American objects after his death remains a mystery. For the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial, Monticello researchers turned this mystery into an opportunity to work with contemporary Native American artists who are preserving traditional art forms. The recreated Indian Hall demonstrates that the Native American art forms encountered by Lewis and Clark and appreciated by Jefferson are still alive today.
In 1825, the year before he died, Jefferson wrote a letter to William Clark in which he clearly signaled his intention to give his collection to the University of Virginia, the foundation of which he referred to as the "hobby of his old age." He wrote Clark to solicit donations for a museum he planned for the University:
[A]mong other objects of our instn [institution] is the collection of a Museum of Nat. hist. [natural history] of Minerals, & of curiosities in general of art or nature. those of Indian arts stand very near to nature itself. Your situation is so favble [favorable] for assisting us in this collection that I cannot help solliciting your attention to us. ... I give to the Univty [University] the whole of my collection which is considble [considerable] and much indeed of which was furnished me from the expedn. [expedition] of yourself & Govr. Lewis to the Pacific.
It seems that in keeping with Jefferson's statement of his intentions in this letter, his collection of Native American material and natural history specimens ended up at the University of Virginia. The ultimate fate of much of the collection remains a mystery, however. In October 1826, according to the records of the meetings of the "Visitors" (Trustees) of the University, a room on the first floor of the Rotunda "was to be finished and fitted for the reception of the natural and artificial curiosities given to the University by the late venerable Rector [Jefferson]; and to have them there suitably arranged for preservation and exhibition." Surprisingly, exhaustive searches at the University over many years have not turned up any records itemizing or cataloguing Jefferson's "natural and artificial curiosities."
The minutes of the meetings of the Board of Visitors record frequent movement of the collection between 1828 and 1848, suggesting that it was forced to give way to the growing spatial needs of the professors of natural philosophy and chemistry. In 1828 the objects were moved from the first floor of the Rotunda to the basement to make room for scientific apparatus; the next year they moved to the upper gallery. In 1830 the Board of Visitors approved the creation of a museum in the basement story. In 1831 Franklin Peale, one of the sons of Charles Willson Peale who ran the Peale Museum after his father's death, traveled to Charlottesville to organize and arrange "the collection known under the denomination of Mr. Jefferson's donation." In October of the same year a young woman named Ann Maury recorded in her diary that she visited the University and saw the lecture rooms and library in the Rotunda. She reported seeing "some of Mr. Jefferson's collections of curiosities, Indian utensils & dresses & weapons & a part of a mammoth's skeleton." This is the only known account written by someone who saw Jefferson's Indian collections at the University.
In 1840 the Board of Visitors was again required to make provisions for the collection, this time approving the purchase of additional cases. The following year it appears that the museum's location in the Rotunda was changed again to create space for more lecture rooms. In 1848 the collection seems to have left the Rotunda; former dormitory rooms on the Lawn at the University were "appropriated to the reception of the objects in the Jefferson Museum" as well as other mineralogical and geological collections, suggesting that at this time the Jefferson collection was still understood as a concrete entity.
In 1878 the Brooks Museum opened its doors on the University of Virginia grounds. It was a free standing museum of natural history, given to the University by Lewis Brooks of Rochester, New York. A student publication, the Virginia University Magazine, had reported in 1876 that geological "specimens of Mr. Jefferson's own accumulation" would be incorporated into the new collections that had been purchased for the Brooks Museum. It is certain that other natural history specimens from Monticello's Entrance Hall, most notably the Lewis and Clark elk antlers, moose antlers acquired by Jefferson in 1784, and mastodon bones excavated by William Clark in Kentucky following the expedition, also found a home in the Brooks Museum. It remains unclear whether any Native American objects from Jefferson's collection were in the Brooks Museum.
The Brooks Museum was dismantled in the late 1940s, and its collections dispersed to various University departments. At the time of the dispersal, Jefferson's collection seems to have no longer survived as a recognizable entity. The elk and moose antlers were loaned back to Monticello by the biology department in 1949 and mastodon bones by the geology department in 1960. All of these loans remain at Monticello. The elk antlers are thus the only original Lewis and Clark objects from Jefferson's collection to survive at Monticello today.
- Elizabeth Chew, 12/2002
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