Mission & History
The Paleontological Research Institution pursues and integrates education and research, and interprets the history and systems of the Earth and its life, to increase knowledge, educate society, and encourage wise stewardship of the Earth.
PRI was founded by Gilbert Dennison Harris (1865-1952). Harris graduated from Cornell University in 1886, and returned 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. On June 28, 1932, Harris held a simple but formal ceremony with family, friends, and former students to lay the cornerstone for a building on a small plot of land adjacent to his home behind Cornell’s north campus. He called his new organization the Paleontological Research Institution, and received a provisional charter for it from New York State in 1933 (the absolute charter was granted in 1936). 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 like him — who wanted to study fossils.
Harris died in 1952, and his former student and protëgé, Katherine Palmer, became PRI’s Director. Palmer was herself a highly accomplished paleontologist, and the first woman to receive American paleontology’s highest honor, the Paleontological Society Medal. She continued to publish the Bulletins and grow the collections.
By the late 1950s, this growth had made 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 1926-27 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 1992, Warren Allmon became PRI’s fourth Director. He greatly expanded PRI’s educational outreach, obtained funds from the National Science Foundation for collections care, and rebuilt connections with Cornell.
Under Allmon’s leadership, in 1994, PRI began thinking about building a new physical structure to serve as a public museum space. Major initial funding from The Park Foundation and New York State in 1996 allowed the project to proceed. The New York architecture firm of Weiss/Manfredi was hired to design the building, and began work in January 1999. The Museum of the Earth opened to the public on September 26, 2003.
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 a major educational resource for central New York, and it is also a popular spot for community events.
PRI’s specimen collections today contain more than 3 million specimens, making them among the 10 largest in the United States. The Bulletins continues, and is now the oldest paleontological journal in the Americas. PRI’s staff continues the tradition of primary research, pursuing topics from macroevolution to conservation. PRI has also become a national leader in informal (outside-the-classroom) Earth science education, providing resources to students and teachers across the country.
In 2004, PRI and Cornell signed an agreement of affiliation, formally ending more than 70 years of estrangement. In 2008, the position of Hunter R. Rawlings III Professor of Paleontology was created in Cornell’s Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences. This professorship can only be held by PRI’s Director, providing yet another formal connection between the two institutions.
On January 24, 2011, PRI’s Board of Trustees voted to merge with the Cayuga Nature Center. Located four miles north of PRI, the Nature Center has 150 acres of woodland and fields overlooking Cayuga Lake, including the 30-acre Smith Woods in Trumansburg, the largest piece of old-growth forest in central New York. The Nature Center has a long history of providing nature-oriented summer camp and educational programs to the Ithaca community. The merger became official in January 2013. Today the Nature Center provides PRI with an array of indoor and outdoor opportunities to expand its educational mission to teach about the Earth and its life — focusing especially on the natural history of the Cayuga Lake Basin.