A Synthesis of Expertise and Expectations: Women Museum Scientists, Club Women and Populist Natural Science in the United States, 1890–1950

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For much of her career at the California Academy of Sciences, a typical day for curator Alice Eastwood might include fumigating herbarium samples, identifying a native plant from a scrap of leaf or stem, training volunteers to catalogue pressed plants, answering requests for specimen swaps, freshening up a display of cut flowers at the museum, replying to letters from the public and professional botanists, consulting on a major flower show, presenting to a committee concerned with roadside beauty and encouraging members of a local garden club to fight urban development in Golden Gate Park. Today such duties and programming might be scattered across several staff positions, coordinated among researchers, curators, exhibition developers, a marketing team and education specialists. However, when Eastwood came to the California Academy of Sciences in 1892, it – like many of its institutional peers – employed curators but not educational or outreach staff. Accordingly, during Eastwood’s lifetime, women scientists working in museums found themselves serving research, outreach and education functions simultaneously. Many scientists would find such labour overwhelming, particularly if they were facing systemic discrimination in their disciplines. Despite these challenges, some women working for museums during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries proved especially adept at synthesising women’s traditional responsibilities as moral reformers with a ‘masculine’ scientific knowledge that allowed women to communicate with professionals and those with political power. I call this tactic the ‘museum synthesis’, because although some other women scientists used it, women working in natural history institutions were among the most successful in deploying it.