Like most growing things, the museum has its roots in the soil -- more specifically, in a small collection of farm products maintained by Col. Leonidas Lafayette Polk, the first North Carolina commissioner of agriculture.
Polk kept his collection in the Briggs Building on Fayetteville Street, where the state geologist also had a small mineral museum. On Feb. 20, 1879, the North Carolina legislature merged the two collections under the then-new agricultural department, and the State Museum of Natural History was born. Its function was commercial rather than educational, its displays more or less advertisements of North Carolina's wares.
The next significant event in the museum's history took place on New Year's Eve, 1880, when an immigrant English farm youth arrived in Raleigh with his family and spent the night in the downtown National Hotel. His name was Herbert Hutchinson Brimley.
In search of a career in the New World, Brimley and his brother, Clement Samuel, got hold of a 50-cent book on taxidermy, learned the trade and went into business. Soon they were among the best "collectors and preparers" in the Southeast, and H.H. Brimley prepared several exhibits of North Carolina animals for the natural history museum.
In 1895, he was appointed the first curator of the museum -- which coincidentally had moved into offices in the old National Hotel, site of the new curator's first night in North Carolina.
The young museum already boasted a varied and somewhat whimsical collection. Besides the predictable agricultural products, minerals and mounted animals, its 1897 "Hand Book" listed samples of the resources and products of China, Egypt, Russia and eight other foreign countries; Indian artifacts, a Revolutionary War cartridge box; alligators; maps; a piece of the first trans-Atlantic cable; and the smokestack from the Confederate ship Albemarle.
Brimley remained as curator until 1937, his scientific curiosity and energetic devotion to the museum setting the tone for its development. During his tenure the museum expanded from commercial promotion of North Carolina agriculture into systematic collection of specimens, taking on the task of obtaining one example of every living species native to North Carolina. And in 1919, with the publication of "Birds of North Carolina," the museum entered the realm of professional publications.
The National Hotel was torn down in 1922, and the current Agriculture building was built on the same Edenton Street site. The museum collection was packed up in boxes for several years and finally re-established in the agriculture annex, where it is today.
Throughout its development, the museum was hampered by lack of status: while the museums of art and history were supported by patrons of academic and social prestige, the natural history museum was considered a relatively insignificant adjunct of the department of agriculture, the farm museum that grew up. -- The Raleigh Times 2/20/1979