The original collection of the Indiana State Museum was started in 1862, during the Civil War, when State Librarian R. Deloss Brown began collecting minerals and other curiosities that he kept in a cabinet. In 1869, the Indiana General Assembly enacted a law which provided “for the collection and preservation of a Geological and Mineralogical Cabinet of the Natural History of this State.” A state geologist was assigned the task of labeling and organizing the collection, becoming the first employee of the Indiana State Museum.
The natural history collection quickly developed beyond the legislature’s original intent when hundreds of cultural items, many relating to the recent Civil War, were added. Soon the collection was a museum of sorts, with a hodge-podge of curios and specimens.
The museum’s collection was displayed in a spacious room on the third floor of the State Capitol building in 1888, but it didn’t remain there for long. It was frequently moved from room to room until 1919, when the collection was sent to a most inhospitable place, the basement of the Statehouse. It would languish in this location for almost 45 years, completely closing once in the late 1920s and again in the early 1960s.
Then, during the administration of Governor Ralph H. Gates (1945-1949), important steps were taken to establish a new and modern state museum. Staff members who knew how to care for artifacts and operate a museum were hired. Possible sites for a new facility were studied and designs created. Philanthropist Eli Lilly, excited by the prospect of a professional-quality museum of Indiana heritage, donated the ground on the northwest corner of Ohio and Senate streets to the state. Unfortunately, the plans fell through, probably due to the $3.5 million price tag.
Later, the administration of Governor Harold W. Handley (1957-1961) and the legislature authorized a commission to examine the state museum. The commission recommended the construction of a building on the site originally proposed by the Gates administration. The commission reported that its members had “been forced to the reluctant conclusion that Indiana has the poorest and most inadequate state museum in the United States.”
It wasn’t until 1962 that Governor Matthew E. Welsh (1961-1965) approved the resumption of the planning for a new state museum, but with a very different direction. The Indianapolis City Hall at 202 N. Alabama St. had become vacant in 1961. The state and the city worked out an agreement for the museum to use the building. The structure was to undergo massive renovations to prepare it for life as a museum, at a cost of about $830,000.
In 1967, the Indiana State Museum opened its doors in its first real home. It had four floors and a basement in which to develop exhibits, store and preserve collections, and provide office space for staff.In 1969, the Indiana State Museum Society (now the Indiana State Museum Foundation) was established to provide a private, fund-raising support organization. Also in 1969, the Indiana State Museum Volunteer Organization was established to support the small museum staff. By 1976, the museum had received accreditation from the American Association of Museums.
As years passed and the collection grew, the old City Hall was becoming too small to meet the needs of the institution. Proposals were made in the late 1970s and mid-1980s for a variety of additions to the facility. Some involved purchasing nearby buildings, and others involved creating brand-new facilities that would connect to the old City Hall building.
The museum’s board voted to move to White River State Park in 1984. However, it was not until the late 1990s that the Indiana General Assembly appropriated funding for an August 1999 groundbreaking for what would become the current Indiana State Museum.
The Indiana State Museum closed its doors in the old City Hall on Dec. 31, 2001, to prepare for its move to a new home at 650 W. Washington St. in the heart of White River State Park. On May 22, 2002, the new Indiana State Museum welcomed more than 5,000 visitors into the new building.
Today, the Indiana State Museum continues to explore Indiana's science and culture. Visitors come to celebrate, investigate, remember, learn and take pride in Indiana's story in the context of our broader world. Look around our website for a peek at what you can find today at the Indiana State Museum.