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Works Progress Administration (WPA): Legacy

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WPA - Professional and Service Division at The Field

Beginning in 1933, The Field Museum hired workers from the Works Progress Administration (WPA), a New Deal agency created to employ people on public-works projects during the Great Depression. Each year, The Field Museum employed approximately 200 WPA employees, which augmented the 189 Museum employees at the time, and a few were hired on a permanent basis after the WPA program's end in 1943.

WPA workers at The Field Museum had varied assignments that were paid for through the agency: some carried out scientific research projects, while others assisted in tasks requiring artistic ability such as the creation of murals, dioramas, and plant models. Many provided clerical work and skilled labor: overall, the Museum's Division of Printing was one of the largest employers of WPA workers. All of the scientific divisions benefited by the large numbers of relief employees assigned to tasks like cataloging, typing manuscript records, filing, cleaning of specimens, and mounting photographs.

As reported by Director Stephen C. Simms in the Field Museum News February 1937 issue, "It should be distinctly understood that this employment of relief workers has been exclusively on the accomplishment of objectives which would not and could not have been undertaken if these people had not been available. The number of regular employees on the Museum's own payroll has not been reduced in consequence (but has slightly increased, in fact), and all of the Museum's own staff members are fully occupied with work of a character more urgent and important than that assigned to the relief workers."

For further reading on the work carried out by WPA workers at The Field Museum, please refer to the following Field Museum resources and publications.

Further resources and publications

Annual Reports

Articles and Books

  • Brinkman, Paul D. 2018. "John Conrad Hansen (1869-1952) and His Scientific Illustrations." Archives of Natural History 45.2: 233-244.
  • Chicago Natural History Museum, Austin Loomer Rand, and Emmet Reid Blake. 1954. Birds the World over, as Shown in Habitat Groups in Chicago Natural History Museum.
  • Martin, Paul S., and Elizabeth S. Willis. 2000. Anasazi painted pottery in Field Museum of Natural History. Mansfield Centre, CT: Martino Pub. 
  • Nash, Stephen E. "The Great Depression Begets a Great Expansion: Field Museum Anthropology 1929-1941." In Shovel Ready: Archaeology and Roosevelt's New Deal for America, ed. Bernard Klaus Means, 67-88. Tuscaloosa: Univ. of Alabama Press, 2013.


WPA at The Field

© The Field Museum, A86190.

Betty [Mrs. Elizabeth] Willis, WPA museum anthropologist, seated at table and Dr. C. Martin Wilbur, curator of Chinese archaeology and ethnology from 1936 to 1944, examine several Chinese snuff bottles with a magnifying glass.

Willis also conducted research on southwestern U.S. pottery, and co-authored the publication Anaszi Painted Pottery in the Field Museum of Natural History.

© The Field Museum, B83238. WPA workers and Museum Curators Group.