Expeditions of Art and Science

By Killian Taylor (Archives and Records Manager, Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum)

(Cover image: William Belanske, curator and artist of the Vanderbilt Museum)

Nestled on the shore of Long Island’s historic “Gold Coast”, the place of inspiration for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s the Great Gatsby, lies the Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum: a one-of-a-kind institution of history and science. The museum is the former estate of William K. Vanderbilt II, a fascinating individual whose passions and wealth led to the creation of one of the most unique and fascinating educational spaces on Long Island.

William K. Vanderbilt II.

Born in 1878, William K. Vanderbilt II was part of the 4th generation born to the fabulously wealthy Vanderbilt family. Growing up with an incredibly privileged life, Vanderbilt was able to indulge in many of his passions growing up. Among his many interests, Vanderbilt was an avid traveler and had spent a good portion of his youth yachting along the East Coast of the United States. As an adult, Vanderbilt owned his own yachts, and committed to longer travels through Europe and the East Coast. With a love of the natural world since youth and inspired by the vast Oceanographic Museum of Prince Albert I of Monaco, Vanderbilt began collecting marine specimens during his trips. With the death of his father in 1920, Vanderbilt received an inheritance of $23 million dollars and used the money to conduct his own expeditions around the world.

Vanderbilt and his crew collecting specimens for the museum.

With larger, better equipped yachts and a crew with professionals from the American Museum of Natural History, Vanderbilt spent the next two decades traveling the world and collecting marine and natural history specimens. His Long Island estate became the center of these expeditions, and it was here that Vanderbilt constructed a museum to house his specimens. By the 1940s, Vanderbilt’s museum had grown to house over 16,000 specimens, including many rare species of marine and terrestrial wildlife and even a taxidermic whale shark (reported to be the largest taxidermic fish in the world.) The museum, one of the largest private collections of marine specimens in the world, was a center of education, entertainment, and fascination for the people of Long Island and the pride of Mr. Vanderbilt’s accomplishments.

Mr. Vanderbilt’s Hall of Fishes, ca. 1936

Today, the Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum is dedicated to the preservation of Mr. Vanderbilt’s works for the education and enjoyment of the public. As an institution that was in operation for over 20 years by the time that the estate was transferred to Suffolk County in 1950, Mr. Vanderbilt’s museum left behind considerable records. Vanderbilt kept several logbooks of his voyages, and many of the expeditions were extensively photographed by a private photographer. Vanderbilt also published a series of books on his major expeditions; one fine example is a book titled Taking One’s own Ship Around the World, an account of Mr. Vanderbilt’s first voyage to circumnavigate the globe in 1928. These books include Mr. Vanderbilt’s accounts of his destinations, as well as photographs and illustrations of marine specimens.

First floor of the Hall of Fishes.

Apart from Mr. Vanderbilt’s personal records, the museum contains a wealth of materials from its original operations. During it’s time as a private institution, the museum produced a series of bulletins on the collection, which included the taxonomic data of the specimens and their places of origin. The museum’s curator also left behind several documents with information on the care and upkeep of the museums wet and dry specimens, as well as correspondences with researchers and experts in the field. The curator, originally an artist by trade, also created several hundred watercolor illustrations of the marine specimens while travelling on expedition with Vanderbilt.

A page from one of Vanderbilt’s books, featuring a watercolor depiction of a marine specimen.

To this day, the Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum remains a unique historical museum space. Though not as large or grand as the larger public museums of New York City or Monaco, Mr. Vanderbilt’s museum contains a wealth of scientific and historic specimens and gives a fascinating insight into the private oceanographic collecting missions of the early 20th century.

More information on the archival collections of the Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum can be found at Suffolk County Vanderbilt Mansion | Archives (vanderbiltmuseum.org)


This post is the first on a series of publications about archives and historical collections on the history of the oceans. If you are an archivist or curator, or you know someone who would be interested in contributing to this series, do not hesitate in writing us!

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