In October 2012, the Department of Arms and Armor marked one hundred years as an independent curatorial department, an event celebrated in the current exhibition Bashford Dean and the Creation of the Arms and Armor Department. Through the closing of the exhibition on October 13, 2014, a series of monthly blog posts will look at different aspects of Bashford Dean's unique and multifaceted career as a scientist, soldier, curator, and collector.
When the department was officially created on October 28, 1912, it was almost entirely due to the talent, scholarship, and tireless drive of Dr. Bashford Dean (1867–1928), the department's founding curator. Between 1904 and 1912, Dean progressed rapidly from guest curator, to honorary curator, to head of the newly created department, as he quickly built the collection into one of international importance. In the process, he established the scholarly discipline of arms and armor studies in America and laid the foundations for the continued growth of the collection into one of the most encyclopedic in the world today. Through acquisitions, exhibitions, and publications, Dean not only set a standard for museum practices but also encouraged private collecting on all levels, from hobbyists of modest means to the wealthiest and most influential men of his day. In addition, at the request of the United States government, Dean designed modern helmets and body armor to protect American soldiers during the First World War.
Bashford Dean's passion for studying and collecting arms and armor began early in life. According to a story told by Dean's sister, Harriet Martine Dean, young Bashford first became fascinated by armor about 1873 at age six, when he spent hours examining a helmet in the collection of a family acquaintance, Carlton Gates of Yonkers, New York. When the Gates collection was auctioned in 1876, Dean, then about nine, tried to buy the helmet but unfortunately was outbid. Among the many books in the Museum's library that once belonged to Dean, there is one about the historical development of arms and armor, published in 1876, that he owned as a child. A handwritten message on the inside cover says, "Bashford Dean, from his Father, on his 10th Birthday, October 28th, 1877." Just a few weeks after he received this gift, Dean successfully bid on two sixteenth-century daggers at the sale the private collection of Henry Cogniat. These two daggers were the first acquisitions of Dean's long collecting career. He probably saw the Cogniat Collection at about age eight, in 1875, when it was on exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum.
A precocious student, Dean entered City College, New York, in 1881, at age fourteen. He completed his PhD in zoology and paleontology at Columbia University in 1891 and immediately joined Columbia's faculty, becoming a full professor by 1904. From the 1880s to the early 1900s, Dean's scientific researches took him to Europe, Russia, Alaska, Japan, and the Pacific coast of the United States. In addition to continuing a full professorship at Columbia, Dean became founder and first curator of the Department of Reptiles and Fishes at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. For several years, he simultaneously held these demanding positions at Columbia, the American Museum of Natural History, and the Metropolitan Museum, producing groundbreaking work for all three institutions while gradually shifting his focus to the study and collection of arms and armor.
By the time of his premature death in 1928, Dean had established the Metropolitan's Department of Arms and Armor as the best museum collection of its type to be formed in modern times and as a leading center for research. Now entering its second century, the department continues to build on Dean's unique legacy.