The museum is one of the Garden’s most iconic buildings, and its history dates back to Garden founder Henry Shaw and his vision for the Missouri Botanical Garden. By spring 2018, when the project is set to be completed, the museum will once again open its doors to the public.
A scientific and historical treasure
When Shaw was building the Garden, he drew inspiration from some of the magnificent gardens and estates of Europe. However, it was Dr. George Engelmann, one of the great early American botanists, who envisioned the Garden being more than a public park. With the assistance of Harvard botanist Asa Gray and Sir William Hooker, director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, Dr. Engelmann persuaded Shaw to ensure the Garden was involved in scientific work and included a herbarium and a library.
Shaw’s museum was established in 1859, the same year that the Garden officially opened its doors to the public. It housed the Garden’s original library, herbarium, and natural history specimens.
Since Shaw’s death in 1889, the building has served many functions—from research lab to offices to restaurant. Since its closing in 1982, it’s only open on special occasions, such as Shaw’s birthday celebration each July 24. When Dr. Peter Wyse Jackson became president of the Garden in 2010, he recognized the building’s historic importance and called for its renovation and restoration.
The museum reimagined
The most significant change will be an addition to the east side of the building. This new space will feature updated and expanded restrooms and an elevator, both of which make the museum accessible to everyone.
Following the standards for the treatment of historic properties by the National Park Service, the new addition will look different from and protect the integrity of the historic building and its environment. Large glass panels will be used as well to avoid obstructing the view from the east.
The new lobby will be accessible through new accessible pathways. They will provide access to the lower level, which will serve as a gallery. The new staircase will link the two floors of exhibits.
Some of the rehabilitation work in the original building includes restoring the architectural features to create a new exhibit space. An archival investigation will help recreate the original ceiling mural. The restored canvas will be attached to the new drywall ceiling.
Hidden history uncovered
Exploratory work inside the museum building revealed something unexpected, hidden beneath a drop ceiling on the south end of the building. Crews uncovered a large mural depicting three influential botanists, George Engelmann, Carl Linnaeus, and Asa Gray.
The portraits of Engelmann and Linnaeus are in remarkably good condition. However, the plaster holding the painting of Gray had fallen onto the drop ceiling below, breaking into dozens of pieces. Those pieces were carefully removed, and will be reassembled so experts can create a replica of the original painting.
Work is still underway to learn more about this discovery, but it is very likely the paintings were original to the building when it first opened in 1859. Although not part of the initial plans for the rehab, the mural will now be incorporated into the public display when the museum reopens.
Andrea Androuais, Content Managing Editor
Cassidy Moody, Digital Media Specialist