Curiosity Cabinets

Long ago, in the days before the Internet, I lived with my wife in the city of Dover, N.H. As she went to grad school at the University of New Hampshire, I worked in copy shops along the seacoast. We loved our apartment in a stately old Victorian house, and the restored mill in the center of town was impressive, but aside from a few favorite breakfast and sandwich joints, we looked elsewhere for entertainment. At night or on weekends, Dover was deadly dull.

When we had time and/or money to burn, we usually headed our trusty shitbox south to Portsmouth, Newburyport or Boston. When we had out-of-town visitors, we took them out of town. When we eventually moved away, I was pretty certain I wouldn’t miss dear old Dover or find a reason for returning outside of basic nostalgia for the time we’d spent there.

For more than a dozen years, my prediction held true. But then in a chance discussion with a friend, I learned what I’d been missing.

I’d had no idea that every time we were racing to leave our uninteresting city, just inside the front door of a brick house on the main street, a stuffed polar bear was standing on his hind legs, peering through the window, watching us flee. And he wasn’t alone: along with a bison, a manatee, a wolf, and a moose head, he inhabited a house crammed to the ceilings with its menagerie of creatures and with Native American artifacts, collections of minerals, war memorabilia and so much more.


Returning from a vacation to Maine last month, we spent a night with some friends on the New Hampshire seacoast. They were in the midst of a massive purging of years of accumulated junk from their closets, and next to the front door, Chris, our host, had piled a stack of carefully mounted butterflies, each set arranged, framed and mounted behind glass. In earlier days, he had been an avid collector, but as his new passion was landscape painting, he was running out of wall space.

“Anna wants me to hold on to them,” Chris said when I asked what was happening to the meticulously preserved arrays of vibrant wings. “But I want to see if the Woodman Institute in Dover will take them.”

The name rang a bell. I recalled the complex of stately brick homes on manicured lawns not far from downtown. At the center of the compound, amidst the buildings and mature maple trees, there was a strange cabin within a cabin. Through the white latticework of the large, encasing structure, you could make out the outline of a dark and decrepit log cabin inside. Though it was clear the outer shell was protecting the inner relic, it also looked as if perhaps the cabin inside were being gated off. Whatever evil lurked within needed to be completely severed from the outside world by this cage.

“The Woodman Institute” was written across the porch of the main building, but while living in Dover for five years and driving past it almost daily, I’d never ventured inside. Nor was I completely certain I was invited.

“Oh, it’s amazing inside,” Chris assured me when I’d verified that we were talking about the same place. “It’s full—absolutely full—of stuff. Taxidermy, fossils, birds, military stuff, a two-headed snake. A bear in a top hat. A doll collection. Dinosaur models and footprints. You’d love the place. They’ve already taken some of my butterflies, but I’m hoping they can take more.”

“But I want the cousins and our family to be able to enjoy them,” Anna said.

“So do I! I hope they and a lot of other people will be able to see them there, on display, if the Institute will take them.”

Suddenly I found myself in the unique and hypocritical position of wanting to spend my leisure time in Dover. We all went the next day for a visit to the Woodman Institute and all left wanting more.


Upon her death in 1915, Mrs. Annie E. Woodman bequeathed her home and $100,000 for an institution in Dover that would promote the study of local history, natural history and art.

Coincidentally, at about the same time an authentic 1675 colonial garrison, the William Damm house, went up for sale. The trustees of the Woodman Institute bought the large timber cabin, relocated it to the Woodman grounds, and built the protective shell of a building with classical columns and cornices framing the lattice.

Arrows stuck into the wooden walls of the historic cabin inside, and muskets poked out through knotholes. The garrison was built to protect itself, and it included holes from which water could be poured to douse any fires the enemy might set. Inside, now, the house is filled mostly with relics that are period-authentic but not original to their setting. But the low ceilings and solid—though creaky—construction was rivetingly authentic.

Securing the garrison house as part of the museum was a bold first effort for the newly anointed trustees, but they had a harder time filling the three-story Woodman home with exhibitions worthy of Mrs. Woodman’s mandate. The house is huge, with three floors, and the campus also includes two other similarly lavish homes. The 1813 Hale House contains collections of historic artifacts, artworks and period furniture, and the 1825 Keefe House contains more than 7,000 historic and genealogic documents. At first there wasn’t much to look at in the museum spaces. Over the decades, though, through purchases and donations, an immense collection has filled its rooms and halls.

Generations of collectors, like my friend Chris, have contributed their prizes to the museum, and the patchwork of carefully itemized natural fauna and flora, minerals, fossils and sea creatures paints an elaborate portrait of the city I’d never connected with while I was a resident.

The place has the feeling of going through a grandparent’s attic, but it’s not dusty. All displays are well lit and placed behind clear, polished glass, and though the place is crammed with objects to look at, everything’s clearly displayed and well organized. And while your grandparents’ attic might have a handful of prizes amongst a whole lot of junk, the Woodman Institute houses only treasures.

The skull of a walrus with its immense tusks hangs from a wall. The last cougar killed in New Hampshire (1853) snarls up at you from its glass case. A man-eating clam found off the Australian coast sits in a corner with its mouth open wide. Most of the second floor is devoted to bird life from around the globe. There’s a dinosaur footprint found in Turners Falls.

While the objects themselves are captivating to look at, it’s also revealing and almost as evocative to see how they are displayed. The presentation of the exhibitions is not homogeneous as it might be in a better endowed, more prestigious museum, but each is a product of the time the animal was killed and stuffed, or the mineral placed in its setting, or the antique taken out of use and put into a collection. Some labels are yellowed and handwritten. Some are typed. Many have been updated with laser-printed signs, but the character of the original text often shines through.

Most of the labels raise more questions than they answer, or conjure stories even more exotic than the object being looked at.

The plaque under the polar bear is etched plastic, letting us know that “Polar Bear” was “shot by Dick Mathes 20 miles from Siberia on frozen Chukchi Sea March 3, 1969, Guide Jack Lee.” A caption in smaller text reads, “Taxidermy By Jonas Bros. of Seattle.” A second, typed sign explains that Mr. Mathes was a resident of Dover, and that the bear is 10 feet in length. The sign appears to lament that the bear is “still not the largest of the species.” Nowhere is it explained what Mathes was doing in Siberia during the hottest days of the Cold War, or whether it was science or bravado that sent the carcass to Seattle to be prepared.

Not all the taxidermy is as high-end as the polar bear. Some of the reptiles, preserved in chemicals, are almost unrecognizable, but the household jars and signs indicate the grassroots level of natural science sometimes being employed and the excitement of having one’s discoveries shared. One reads, “Unidentified snake that came to Dover in a bunch of Bananas from Jamaica.” Another: “Unidentified two-headed snake found near Dover, N.H.”

The last cougar killed in New Hampshire looks like he might have been the first animal preserved in the state. As the signage acknowledges, “It is an example of the crude taxidermy of the time.” But the sign also explains that it was a gift to the institute by Sewall D. Chapman, the son of the man who shot it in the neighboring town of Lee in 1853. Looking into the slightly cockeyed glass beads that represent the beast’s eyes, you can’t help but wonder how many generations of Chapmans have returned its gaze and wondered what it had been like for their ancestor to face down such a beast. Did he know it was the last one when he pulled the trigger?

I wasn’t around when Chris presented his batch of butterflies for their collection, but I can imagine the look of frustrated regret on their faces when they politely turned him down. Clearly, the trustees still have a love and respect for their local collections and collectors, but now the question isn’t about how to build an exhibit, but maintaining what they’ve got. It wasn’t out of a lack of interest that they rejected his offering, but a lack of resources. Annie Woodman’s funds are long gone and now the Woodman Institute survives on volunteer help, donations and some grant money.

More importantly, though, it is threatened by people like me, who through inertia, uncertainty or pure neglect have deprived themselves of feasting their eyes and minds on all that these small, local museums have to offer.


I spent most of my time exploring the Natural History section of the Institute, but at the time there was also an exhibit on President Lincoln (it included a lectern he spoke at for two hours while addressing the Dover City Hall in 1860). I never made it to the other houses on the campus, with their art and historic furniture. Still, the experience stayed with me all the way back to my home in the Pioneer Valley, and I wondered what small, eclectic local collections I might have overlooked. Was there a Woodman Institute equivalent in the Valley?

There are many interesting small museums along the Connecticut River that specialize in material on a certain topic, but the only museum I’ve found that approaches the quirkiness and breadth of what can be found in Dover is the Joseph Allen Skinner Museum in South Hadley.

Skinner was the second son of William Skinner, the successful Holyoke-based silk manufacturer, and though Joseph went to Yale and got a B.A. in the philosophy of science, he returned home to work in the family business. He lived in a townhouse in the city and summered at the orchard across the river in South Hadley. Eventually he moved to the orchard permanently. Like many wealthy industrialists of his age, he was a philanthropist. In addition to the museum, he also donated the land that is now Skinner State Park to the public.

Unlike the artifacts in the Woodman Institute, Skinner’s collection was assembled by the man himself, and it very much reflects his personal view of the world he lived in and what he thought important.

In the days before travelers brought back stacks of photos or hours of video to document their travels, many brought back souvenirs and put them on display in their homes. As the brochure for the Skinner Museum explains, “Displaying such mementos served as evidence of one’s wealth, status, and sophistication. A popular decoration in fashionable homes was the Curio Cabinet—a display crowded with unusual artifacts, relics, souvenirs, and natural history specimens. These collections emphasized not just objects of artistic quality, but also items meant to shock, impress, or amaze the viewer.”

Joseph Skinner took this concept and ran with it. And ran, and ran, and ran.

While at one time he may have had a cabinet to store his treasures, it soon became too small. A whole room of his house became devoted to his finds, and then they began to spill out into the rest of the house. While he had many items from faroff lands in his collection, Skinner was also interested in preserving local items. As someone who had seen massive technological leaps in his lifetime, he felt it was important to document the tools and technology once used in Western Massachusetts.

With the news of the impending flooding of the Quabbin Reservoir in 1931, Skinner acted fast, and along with adding some of the largest antiques to his collection, he also solved some of his storage issues. He moved a church and a schoolhouse from the ill-fated town of Prescott, soon to be submerged under the reservoir, and put them on the land near his home on Woodbridge Street. In 1932, he filled the buildings with his collection and opened them up to the public. The collection remains much as he left it. When he died, he bequeathed it to Mt. Holyoke College, which maintains it and keeps it open on Wednesday and Sunday afternoons.

There are fewer natural history items in the collection here than at the Woodman Institute, and more historic and artistic objects. Though many of the items are also in glass cases and well taken care of, the old church has no air conditioning, and the bare rafters make you feel much more like you’re poking around in someone’s attic. Though the objects are mostly organized by subject, the juxtapositions can be eccentric. Next to a selection of brutal Native American weapons, a hidden panel swings back to reveal ancient books concealed in the wall. Underneath one of the first bicycles, there’s a small curtain that, when pulled back, reveals a framed letter signed by General George Washington. The cooler basement has a more interpretive display showing how a colonial family might have lived with the emphasis on household tools, early industry, and farming equipment.


When I was in college, I took a part-time job at an antiquarian bookstore. I’d always enjoyed rifling through their ephemera—maps, etchings, letters, old advertisements—looking for some cheap prize to add to my own collections. I was delighted to be able to get a backroom view of how the operations worked. I was equally horrified when I found out, after spending some time reading a bit of Revolutionary War correspondence, that the sequence of letters between a soldier and his family would make a whole lot more money sold off individually than as a set. Each letter would be sold separately, and rather than putting them all out at the same time so someone could buy the set, the plan was to slowly introduce them to the shop to increase demand. Most of the etchings and maps I loved to examine were torn out of larger books that would be too expensive for most of the store’s patrons if sold as a single unit.

As our lives become increasingly digital, and our view of the world and its curiosities becomes more virtual, physical collections like those in Dover or South Hadley are imperiled. The danger is less that the individual items will be lost—if a museum goes belly-up, there’s always eBay—than that the object’s context, relevance and relationship to the rest of the exhibit will be destroyed. While the problems these institutions face are certainly, in part, financial, the greater challenge seems to be a waning interest or even a mounting reluctance to leave the immediacy of the screens we stare at and immerse ourselves in what is actual.

A list of some other curious museums in the Pioneer Valley is available here.

Author: Mark Roessler

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