The Damned Story: One of the very first museums in North America, Joseph Steward’s Museum of Natural and Other Curiosities in Hartford is testament to the fact that even over 200 years ago, people loved the damned!
In the late 18th century, renowned portrait painter — and clearly, aspiring showman — Joseph Steward of Hartford decided he needed a hook to draw more people to see his paintings. He collected a number of “natural and artificial curiosities,” including an 18-foot Egyptian crocodile, the “horn of a unicorn” and a calf “with two complete heads,” and added them to his gallery space in the original State House. As there had really been nothing like this in the New World to this point, it was an instant hit. A little over a decade after opening in 1797, Steward’s museum had become so popular that it outgrew it’s original space and had to move to a bigger building across the street.
Steward died in 1822, but the museum continued on, moving to a few different locations along the way. It eventually closed in the middle of the 19th century, and its specimens were donated to the Connecticut Historical Society. It would have been lost to history but when the Old State House was undergoing a major renovation in the 1990s, Wilson H. Faude, the building’s executive director at the time, decided to also re-open Steward’s fabled museum in all its glory. It’s due to his efforts — and his Steward-inspired showmanship — that the current exhibit exists.
If you’re interested in a more detailed account of the re-creation of Faude’s effort behind recapturing the former glory of the museum, check out this 1997 article from The New York Times. Steward’s Wikipedia entry has a nice list of the items in the original museum.
Update: After I wrote this initial post, it came to my attention that there have been some reports that the Old State House itself may be haunted. Apparently, there are those who say if you are on the second floor near the Museum of Curiosities, you can hear ghostly footsteps. Just thought I’d mention it!
Our Damned Experience: After years of trying — the Old State House is generally open during regular business hours — we finally made it there in June 2009. As it was a Tuesday afternoon, the place was generally empty, which meant we had Steward’s Museum of Curiosities to ourselves.
As you can see from the images, the “museum” really isn’t much more than a single room, and not an overly large one at that — in other words, don’t plan on spending the day (or afternoon) here. About 20 minutes should do it.
The Old State House’s audio-guided self tour has a few selections for Steward’s museum and offers a little extra insight — not quite “Pedro is working on an ‘adobe.’ Can you say that with me?“, but you get the gist.
Many of the museum’s current exhibits are not originals, but either replicas or newer similar specimens. Still, there are some curious items in this wonderfully cluttered collection.
Obviously, the centerpiece of the museum now is what it was then — a two-headed calf, purchased in 1994 for the re-opening of the museum and now which stands quietly in a glass case. A large crocodile dangles from the ceiling; by a window stands “the unicorn horn,” which looks suspiciously like a narwhal tusk. Also nearby is a jar containing a fetal pig with two heads, while all sorts of exotic and colorful examples of taxidermy hang from the walls and ceiling — the place almost feels more like a hunting lodge than a museum of natural curiosities.
I guess we take these sort of specimens for granted nowadays; back in the day, these types of items must’ve made for quite an attraction. Still makes for a fun little diversion.
Also hanging high on the walls are some original portraits by Joseph Steward himself — nothing odd about them, but no doubt the old showman would’ve been okay with them.
Odd note: Under one of the displays, there is an item that appears to be a seismograph — there’s an image of it in the gallery. I don’t know why it would be here in the museum, but hey, why not?
P.S. Although the museum was mostly empty the afternoon we visited, we didn’t hear any unusual footsteps on the second floor.
If You Go: As it has been on and off over the last two centuries, Steward’s Museum of Curiosities is located on the 2nd floor of the Old State House at 800 Main Street in Hartford. It is open year-round for tours, Monday to Friday, 9-5. During the summer, it is open Tuesday to Saturday, 10-5.
Although the main two floors of the Old State House may seem like stuffy old Colonial-type history, make sure to visit the basement and the Mortenson Gallery, home to History Is All Around Us, a vivd interactive exhibit chronicling 300 years of Connecticut.