Many New Yorkers are likely unaware that a collection of ancient Egyptian items once resided on Broadway near Astor Place. From 1853-1860 the Abbott Collection, displayed as the Egyptian Museum, was located at the Stuyvesant Institute at 659 Broadway. Dr. Henry Abbott was a British physician who lived in Cairo for over 20 years and was a known collector of Egyptian art and antiquities, in a time when it was still possible to collect and export such items. Abbott traveled to America to display the objects and to generate interest to sell his collection.
However, he was not able to raise much of the $100,000 that he had wanted. Despite the inclusion of ancient objects such as mummified bulls and cats, the exhibit was not as popular as other “museums” in the city such as the P. T. Barnum’s American Museum that often displayed fake items and outlandish freaks. Advertisements for the Egyptian Museum attempted to highlight the educational value of the exhibit and the authenticity of the items on display.
However, one noted fan of the Egyptian Museum was the author Walt Whitman. His name appears in two of the three large ledger books recording visitors and their observations from the museum. One comment from him states that he is on his twentieth visit to the museum. Whitman even wrote a piece for Life Illustrated on December 8, 1855 about his love for the history of Egypt and the objects he saw in the museum. The article mentions his meeting with Dr. Abbott and describes him as disappointed in the American public’s reception of the exhibit. Abbott returned to Cairo soon after and died in 1859.
The fate of the large and expensive Abbott collection was unclear for many years. It appeared that the general American public was perhaps not sure what to make of the serious collection of ancient artifacts. It stayed on display on Broadway until it was eventually purchased in 1860 by the New-York Historical Society, one of the only serious museums in New York City at the time. Because of changing collecting interests, the Society decided to lend and then transfer the Abbott Collection to the Brooklyn Museum, where it still resides today.