Mission & History
The Paleontological Research Institution serves society by increasing and disseminating knowledge about the history of life on Earth.
Gilbert Harris entered Cornell University as a professor of geology in 1895. Over the next 40 years, Harris established himself as one of the most important American invertebrate paleontologists of his generation. Frustrated at delays in getting some of his own research published, Harris established his own scientific printing enterprise, founding the Bulletins of American Paleontology in 1895, and printing it himself on a press located in McGraw Hall on the Cornell University campus. He worried that Cornell would not care for his legacy after he retired, and so he urged University administration to provide new space on campus for his collections and printing enterprise, and guarantees that these would be maintained in perpetuity.
Cornell rebuffed him, and so Harris decided that he would found his own separate scientific organization. In early 1932, he received a charter from New York State for an educational organization he called the Paleontological Research Institution. On June 28, 1932, Harris held a simple but formal ceremony with family, friends, and former students to lay the cornerstone for the first PRI building on a small plot of land adjacent to his home behind Cornell’s north campus. Harris laid out high scientific standards for his organization and, together with his large collections and widely respected journals, PRI's reputation in the scientific research community was established. PRI was envisioned as, and for decades largely remained, an enclave for Harris and people who wanted to study fossils.
By the late 1950s, growth of the collections and activity was making the PRI building increasingly cramped. In 1965, PRI purchased a large stone building and 6.3 acres on Ithaca's West Hill, across Cayuga Lake from Cornell. The 10,000 square-foot tudor-style structure had been built in 1926 as an orphanage by a fraternal organization, the International Order of Odd Fellows. By the end of 1969 the move to West Hill was completed. The new building allowed for an area to be devoted solely to public education: in a 600 square-foot room on the first floor, PRI set up a "mini-museum."
In 1993, PRI began thinking about building a new physical structure to serve as a public museum space. The New York architecture firm of Weiss/Manfredi was hired to design the building, and began work in January 1999. On September 27, 2003, the Museum of the Earth held a private reception for everyone involved in building the Museum and opened to the public two days later. Today, the Museum welcomes approximately 30,000 visitors a year. The building's design has received regional and national architectural acclaim. The Museum and its exhibits and programs have received national and international media attention. It is a significant regional tourist attraction as well as an major educational resource for central New York, and it is also a popular spot for community events.
On January 24, 2011, the Board of Trustees of the Paleontological Research Institution voted to start an official merger process with the Cayuga Nature Center. Located five miles away, the Cayuga Nature Center cultivates awareness, appreciation and responsibility for the natural world through outdoor and environmental education and has a long history of providing nature-oriented camp and educational programs to the Ithaca community. The merger will capitalize on the unique strengths of these two organizations to offer high-quality natural history programming to the central New York region, and improve joint and separate programmatic capacity at both organizations.
Excerpted from The Paleontological Research Institution: The First 75 Years by Warren D. Allmon.