Published: October 20, 2015

The Museum's First Million: A lead up to The Field Museum

Jenna Lieblich, Membership Manager, Programs, Membership
South facade of the Palace of Fine Arts building from the World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago, 1893. Gondola boats in the lagoon and people on stairs.

With only six weeks left before the end of the Columbian Exposition, the incorporators and trustees realized they needed to raise a lot of money to fund the new museum. On September 14, 1893, A.W. Manning from the Evening Post suggested Exposition stock holders donate their shares to the museum. This suggestion was successful and brought in roughly $1,500,000 from over 1,100 people; however, the project was still vastly underfunded and the founders needed a major donor. Retail magnate Marshall Field was approached for this major gift, but promptly turned down the prospect, claiming “I don’t know anything about a museum and I don’t care to know anything…I’m not going to give you a million dollars.” In no position to take that as a final answer, a member of the committee asked Edward Ayer, then chairman of the temporary finance committee, to ask Marshall Field one more time. Ayer walked into Field’s office the next morning and asked to speak to him.

Field replied, “You want to talk to me about that darned museum.”

“Yes,” Ayer admitted.

“How much time do you want?” Field asked.

Ayer then replied, “If I can’t talk you out of a million dollars in fifteen minutes, I’m no good, nor you either.”

Ayer managed to talk Field into touring the Exposition with him the next day. On the morning following their tour, Ayer had the one million dollar check in his hands from the stubborn retail magnate.

(Check back next week to see how the story of The Field Museum unfolds)

One hundred and twenty-two years ago, an act of philanthropy established The Field Museum. Today, support from members like you sustains that act. From fossils to fungi, mummies to meteorites, we have them all. Invest in YOUR museum. Mark your calendars for Wednesday, October 28, 2015 and make a gift on our first annual Giving Day! #FieldGivingDay

© The Field Museum, GN90799d_JWH_033w, Photographer William Henry Jackson