Museum of Natural and Other Curiosities (Closed)
This museum was closed permanently in 2016 by state budget cuts.
The Old State House in downtown Hartford is open to the public, which is free to walk the historic halls of the Constitution State's symbolic home. Inside, it's worth a stop to see the Museum of Natural and Other Curiosities (which began charging admission after our visit).
Painter Joseph Steward opened his oddities collection to the public in 1797 and found a welcoming venue in the Old State House attic in 1800. To handle the museum's increasing popularity, Steward relocated across the street in 1808, and continued to acquire specimens until he passed away in 1822.
Though long ago dispersed, the collection of freaks and rarities was reassembled in a one-room exhibit in the 1990s -- some originals and some approximations based on historic accounts.
Exotic, colorful, stuffed birds perch in an interior window. An eight-foot-long alligator dangles from the ceiling. There are albino woodland critters and a two-headed pig. A whale vertabrae lies under a table; a giant lobster claw looks like it could snap off a child's head.
The "calf with two complete heads" was an important part of Steward's original collection. A suitable replacement -- a spanking fresh, stillborn, two-headed calf -- was donated in 1996 by a dairy farm in Cheboygan, Michigan.
More conventional mounts of rare butterflies, insects, the exoskeletons of horseshoe crabs are displayed -- the kind of things a rich collector of specimens might have accumulated in Colonial days. Steward also had an interest in strange mechanical devices, a few of which are shown. For all the eclectic flair of his Cabinet of Curiosities, Steward's paintings seem conventional, portraiture common at that time. The guy has been remembered more for his art than his freak collection, but over time this little museum may change that.
In the 1800s, Steward actually gave a discount off his 25 cents admission fee to museum visitors who also commissioned one of his silhouette profile likenesses (Perhaps this was the Birth of the Attraction Combo Ticket?).
As is usual with these kind of sideshow collections, we wish someone had thought to pickle and display its creator, or at least had documented more of his thoughts and odd motivations.