This small natural history museum in the Green Mountains is a rare find.
On a late winter day, I make my way up twisty-turny Route 9 to the Southern Vermont Natural History Museum in Marlboro, Vermont. Its setting is spectacular: just below the Hogback Mountain peak, perched on the edge of a vertiginous drop.
The museum entrance is through the Hogback Mountain Gift Shop, past the blueberry jam, maple syrup, and Vermont cheddar—pay your $5 admission at the fudge counter—and down a flight of stairs.
The “hundred-mile view,” as it is known, stretches out beyond the picture windows that run along one side of a sloping hall. Lining the other wall are cases filled with fossils and minerals: dolomite, kaliophilite, chrysoprase, petrified wood, brachiopods…
The museum houses the collection of Luman Ranger Nelson (1874-1966). At various times a barber, Chevrolet salesman, state legislator, and chairman of the New Hampshire State Fish and Game Commission, Nelson pursued his avocation as a taxidermist in his barn in Winchester, New Hampshire.
There were few limits on hunting wild animals when Nelson was collecting specimens, including owls, shorebirds, squirrels, foxes, a boar and a bear, nearly 250 species native to the Northeast in all.
It’s not just stuffed bears: The museum also serves as a home away from home for living creatures. A petite saw-whet owl, a giant snapping turtle, a pair of bald eagles, and a white California king snake are among the inhabitants.
Some were hit by cars or otherwise injured and brought to the museum for rehabilitation. Others were taken from the wild and kept as pets until the novelty faded or the upkeep overwhelmed. None could ever live on its own again.
The day I visited the museum, the frozen landscape vibrant with light complemented the frozen-in-time atmosphere. You-can-see-forever vistas outside, artifacts inviting close scrutiny inside.
Varnished wooden display cases and cabinets with a nick here and there, creaky wood floors, and hand-lettered labels lend small, older museums a charm that spectacular newer institutions don’t have and don’t want. (In fact, the Southern Vermont Natural History Museum is quite young; it opened in 1996. But the Nelson collection dates mostly from the 1920s and ’30s, and its almost Victorian quality, combined with the homey setting, makes the place seem of another time.)
Old-school museums’ mix of modesty, eccentricity, earnestness, innocence, creepiness, and decrepitude disarms me, but aside from what they contain, I also respond to what they signify. De facto “museums of museums,” they represent what earlier generations of curators, collectors, and benefactors thought worthy of preservation and display.
Like some of the creatures on display, these repositories of curiosities are an endangered species, succumbing to contemporary visions of what natural history museums should be. (Amherst College’s Pratt Museum, for instance, located in a Victorian gymnasium, became extinct a few years ago. I love its replacement, the sleek, sparkling Beneski Museum, but I miss the bygone Pratt.)
Newer iterations can be self-consciously outgoing, eagerly interactive, but here, contemporary marketing concepts and strategies for boosting “audience engagement” haven’t penetrated. Fine by me.
Hand-written labels. Simple explanatory placards. It feels personal, human, guileless.
At the same time, in this type of museum, there’s a touch of the grotesque and the gothic that, frankly, I can’t get enough of.
The displays exude both innocence and the macabre. Animals that look so nearly alive are at the same time so dead: enclosed, seized-up, starkly lit or lurking in the shadows, posed against a painted backdrop of a bucolic valley with a red barn.
It made me ponder Nelson’s intent. Did he hope to capture the feral spirit of the creatures, or was his aim more didactic, of the “this is a red squirrel” variety? From what I’ve read, he loved the outdoors, nature, animals (and hunting) and gave lectures on the subject of bird migration and the life cycle of mammals. So, both, I think.
As well as conserving the collections of an earlier time and ethos, the museum is quietly but determinedly making a case for the environment. The Thursday afternoon that I spent at the museum, a friendly, knowledgable docent greeted and talked with kids, parents, and other visitors in a down-to-earth way about the exhibits.
The museum seems to be applying a pretty basic formula that includes a dash of hope: Give people a chance to observe animals close up (dead and alive) and they will appreciate them and care about protecting them.
There’s something a little sad about wild animals in enclosures, even when it saves their lives and serves such a good cause. For me the birds of prey were most poignant. Protected, fed, cared for, loved, even—and treated to a magnificent view of wilderness (such as wilderness is today) that they can never experience beyond the chain link.
But maybe I’m being sentimental. (It wouldn’t be the first time.) Perhaps their attitude is, “Thank God I’m in here and not out there, risking my life every day to catch a measly mouse.” And no question, the six-year-old boy exploring the museum with his parents was tickled to see bald eagles Molly Stark and Stormy.
If I lived nearby, I’d volunteer to tend the pair of ravens, whose look-you-in-the-eye curiosity (probably of the “Do you have something for me to eat?” variety), won my heart immediately.
Teetering again on the verge of sentimentality, I’d hazard that the Southern Vermont Museum of Natural History encapsulates something very Vermontian. The air of welcome, the lack of pretense, the appreciation of the environment, and the sincere and solid effort that keeps it going all seem in keeping with the innate nature of the state.
Come summer, I’ll go back to hike the museum’s trails through more than 600 acres of protected land—and for a pint at the Bear Naked Brewery just above the museum (with a plan to head down that swervy road before dark and definitely under the limit). I’ve heard the potato pancakes by Andrzej’s Polish Kitchen, which also serves kielbasa and galumpkis from a food truck on the brewery premises, are delicious. But after face-to-face encounters with beasts and birds within and possibly beyond the museum’s walls, I might pass on Andrzej’s bigos, translated as “hunter’s stew.”