Bringing the Science Museum to America

  • Arts & Culture
  • 1933

One of the favorite places that Chicago philanthropist Julius Rosenwald ever visited with his family was the Deutsches Museum in Munich—which (then as now) was the world’s foremost exhibit of technology and science. The inspired Rosenwald resolved to give America its first great science museum, replete with a full-size re-created mine, huge machines, and clever interactive exhibits. To bring the project to fruition during the 1920s and ’30s he pledged $3 million of his own money (ultimately increased to $5 million).

Even more crucial than Rosenwald’s inspiration and funding was his steely determination and executive resolve—every ounce of which was required to translate his dream into reality in the face of municipal incompetence, cost overruns, staff disputes, neighborhood resistance, engineering disasters, and myriad other roadblocks. Yet Rosenwald fiercely rebuffed every effort to place his name on the museum, reasoning that the people of Chicago would be more likely to feel they “owned” the institution—and thus be willing to expend effort to keep it healthy and fresh over the decades ahead—if the institution was simply identified with the city, not its main patron.

Rosenwald seems to have calculated right, as the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago has continued to be updated and improved in dramatic ways. Today it remains the largest science museum in the Western Hemisphere, and the second most popular cultural attraction in its home city.

  • Peter Ascoli, Julius Rosenwald: The Man Who Built Sears, Roebuck and Advanced the Cause of Black Education in the American South (Indiana University Press, 2006)
  • Museum of Science and Industry, msichicago.org/about-the-museum