It’s National Wildlife Week, and the National Wildlife Federation is urging parents to participate by making time for outdoor play and interaction with the natural world. But for many of us it’s still too cold and wet outside to commune with anything more natural than mud (not that there’s anything wrong with that). Anyway, it seemed like the perfect week for a drive to the hinterlands of upstate New York for a visit to the Pember Museum of Natural History.
Darwin wasn’t the only 19th century gentleman with an interest in collecting specimens from nature. Many people of leisure at that time set out (often with hunting rifles) to explore the wilderness and bring back keepsakes for the taxidermist to turn into something nice for the library wall or the drawing room sidetable.
Franklin Pember was born near the slate-mining center of Granville, NY
in 1841. He was an entrepreneur, with interests in opera, fur, and orange groves. From boyhood he was interested in the natural world and collected mounted birds and mammals, bird nests and eggs, shells, insects, plants and rocks and minerals. This collection became the basis of the museum which bears his name, housed in a stone mansion upstairs from the public library. It’s a compact little one-room exhibition of stuffed birds, animal heads, and dead bugs pinned to cards that probably hasn’t changed a whit since it first opened in 1908.
Although it’s the very opposite of a modern science museum in its jumbling together of animals of all kinds from all over without any sort of context, I thought it would be fun to spend an hour seeing how 19th century gentlemen studied nature.
Taxidermy actually played a big role in Darwin’s development of the
Theory of Evolution. Darwin learned the art of taxidermy from
John Edmonstone, a freed black slave from British Guiana, when he was a student at Edinburgh University. Edmonstone’s accounts of life in the tropical rainforests of South America are thought to have convinced Darwin to switch his interest from medicine to nature. Later, it was a taxidermist for the London Zoological Society, John Gould, who pointed out to Darwin that the finches he had collected on the different Galapagos islands were actually different species.
I don’t think my kids made any great discoveries while they roamed the aisles of glass cases in the Pember Museum. But they enjoyed the alligator and the menacing grizzly bear, the boar’s head and the giant rhea (there’s a nice slideshow on the Pember’s Facebook page). And it was an interesting glimpse into an earlier way of doing science – and especially how science used to be enjoyed by people who weren’t scientists.
For more suggestions for bringing nature into your kids’ lives — even when the weather’s crummy, go to the National Wildlife Week website.