The Lost Wesleyan Museum of Natural History
Scattered throughout the ancient cities of Rome and Jerusalem, one can see remnants of those historical metropolises as they appeared in their past lives. Similarly, one can see the remnants of the Wesleyan Museum of Natural History scattered throughout the University campus. Once a staple resource for educational science, it is now an all-but-forgotten chapter of the University’s past.
The museum was originally founded to feature the growing scientific and anthropological collections within the University. In particular, Joseph Barratt—physician, botanist, and occasional teacher at the University—had amassed various scientific specimens. Meanwhile, the Missionary Lyceum, a student group, gathered artifacts, or “curiosities,” of an anthropological nature. A catalogue from June of 1848 by this student group composed of students Benjamin S. Roberts, Frank O. Blair, Ralza M. Manly, and Henry L. [F]oyes, details artifacts they had collected by that time from Africa, China, South America, New Zealand, and the South Sea Islands.
The Wesleyan Museum was established in 1871, 40 years after the founding of the school. It had all the makings of an incipient natural history museum. Located on the third and fourth floors of Judd Hall, this “curiosity cabinet” museum housed an ample collection of materials. The exhibits included natural artifacts such as shells, rocks, fossils, and wood and mineral specimens, in addition to animals, insects, and dried plant species—some of which had been collected at the time of the University’s founding. The museum also boasted a collection of American Indian artifacts, coins, artwork, and even a mummy.
In the 1880s, extensive interest and use of the museum spurred an inclusion of human ethnological collections and an expansion to the second floor of Judd.
However, at the turn of the 20th century, interest in the museum waned. As the world of scientific education advanced, the study of artifacts in educational methodology took a secondary role to live specimen lab work. Consequently, the second floor of Judd was repurposed for laboratory space and the museum’s funding was cut. The institution remained open, but it became a site primarily for visitors rather than one for scholarly investigation.
The museum enjoyed a new life in 1938, mainly due to interest from school groups that toured the museum regularly. It was repaired and remodeled, but it was still not used for educational purposes on campus. In 1957, to fulfill the growing need for modern science facilities, the museum was completely shut down and refurbished to provide additional laboratory space.
The Wesleyan Museum was closed in a rash and haphazard manner—staff had to account for thousands of specimens. Some of the artifacts were hastily reassigned to new locations on and off campus. Many were shipped to the Smithsonian Institution, while others were donated or loaned to various Connecticut institutions. Non-allocated artifacts were relegated to storage spaces throughout campus.
The dismantling of the museum was intended to be temporary, but the funds necessary to reopen the museum never materialized. Hardly any of the artifact relocation process is on record, and an unknown number of specimens were ruined in storage. Others were either lost or stolen.
Another twenty years passed before the artifacts were unearthed.
Finally, in the 1970s, various faculty members—particularly those from the anthropology and archaeology departments—expressed interest in cataloging the materials pertinent to their fields.
Today, those interested in seeing some of the artifacts from this historic University institution can go on a walking tour to view the surviving remains of the Judd Museum.
Lobby—Exley Science Center
At the rear of the Exley lobby, you have probably seen the dinosaur footprints treading along the wall and through the glass barrier to SciLi. The majority of these footprints were discovered locally in the Portland, Connecticut quarries. The footprints, which range in size from 2-to-6 inch Gallator prints to larger Otozoum moodii tracks, were made by bipedal dinosaurs of varying statures. Many of these dinosaurs were likely predators. Some of the dinosaurs were as small as 3 feet tall, while others stood 6 feet tall. Many of the fossils were discovered in the mid-1800s.
Joe Webb Peoples Museum and Collections—Exley Science Center
If you return to the front of the Exley lobby and take the elevator to the fourth floor, you will find the Joe Webb Peoples Museum and Collections. This is one of the most intact, complete collections from the old museum. Rows of display cases are filled with specimens of animals, plants, and minerals as they were originally displayed.
World Instrument Collection—first floor of the Music Studios building in the Center for the Arts
Wesleyan possesses one of the most extensive and exotic university collections of world musical instruments. The collection’s instruments fall into three categories: instruments intended for daily use; instruments brought to campus by students, alumni, and faculty; and donated instruments. These instruments are also on display in the Virtual Instrument Museum, which can be found online via the University website.
Special Records & Archives—Olin Library, main floor
The University collections extend beyond physical objects. For those artifacts not present within the bounds of the Wesleyan campus, there are numerous photographs and documents available for perusal in the Special Records & Archives in Olin Library. In fact, the Special Record & Archives proved indispensable for the research of the University Museum, and is used daily by many curious students, eager to learn more about the University’s past.