In 1903 Rea became professor of biology and geology and curator of the museum at the College of Charleston. He would remain at the college until 1914. He assumed his position as curator of the museum at a time when it needed a leader with vision and a commitment to increasing the educational and research potentials of the collections.
Biologist, educator, museologist. Rea was born in Cotuit, Massachusetts, on February 13, 1878, the son of the Reverend John T. Rea and S. Helen Rea. He graduated from Williams College in 1899; did additional academic work at the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole, Massachusetts, and at Columbia University; and for a time was an assistant in biology at Williams. He married Carolyn Morse of Medford, Massachusetts, in 1904. The couple had one son before Carolyn died from typhoid fever in 1913. On June 25, 1919, Rea married Marian Goddard Hussey, with whom he had a daughter.
In 1903 Rea became professor of biology and geology and curator of the museum at the College of Charleston. He would remain at the college until 1914. He assumed his position as curator of the museum at a time when it needed a leader with vision and a commitment to increasing the educational and research potentials of the collections. Assisted by his first wife, Rea set out to make the museum more visible, presenting public lectures on natural history, publishing a museum bulletin sent to leaders of the city, and founding the Charleston Natural History Society (which later would become a chapter of the National Audubon Society). In March 1906 Rea negotiated a change in his title from curator to director of the museum, and in December 1906 he arranged for the name of the museum to be changed from the College of Charleston Museum to the Charleston Museum. Through Rea’s efforts the museum was moved from the college, where it had been housed for many years, into the vacant Thomson Auditorium, which had been built for the 1899 reunion of Confederate Veterans. In order to adequately handle the collections, Thomson Auditorium was remodeled, and by the middle of 1911 the move of the museum holdings to their new quarters was essentially complete. In 1915 the Charleston Museum was chartered as an independent organization with its own board of trustees and with Paul Rea continuing as director until 1920. In addition to his other duties, Rea taught embryology and physiology at the Medical College of the State of South Carolina in Charleston from 1911 to 1920.
Rea served as secretary of the American Association of Museums from 1907 to 1917 and later served as president of that organization from 1919 to 1921. He wrote Directory of American Museums (1910), The Museum and the Community (1932), and numerous articles on museum work. In 1920 Rea moved to Ohio to become director of the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, a position he held until 1928. Later he was executive officer of the Philadelphia Museum of Art (1929), consultant to an advisory group on museums established by the Carnegie Corporation of New York (1930–1932), and director of the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History (1933–1936). Rea died suddenly at his home in Santa Barbara, California, on January 15, 1948.
Sanders, Albert E., and William D. Anderson, Jr. Natural History Investigations in South Carolina from Colonial Times to the Present. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1999.