Hartford collection attracts the curious
HARTFORD, Conn. - Connecticut’s Old State House looks much as it did 200 years ago. There are the glorious legislative chambers, the large Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington, the calf with two heads.
Well, long before Barnum or Ripley, the Old State House housed a bizarre collection of “natural curiosities’’ that included the bi-headed bovine. Believe it or not.
In 1797, painter Joseph Steward opened his Museum of Natural and Other Curiosities on the State House’s top floor. It featured his portraits and life-size wax figures of politicians, including Washington, but the real attractions were the exotic taxidermy specimens from the farthest corners of the world. Visitors who paid 25 cents to see the weird collection of toys in the attic were both fascinated by the strange creatures, such as armadillos and alligators, and freaked out by the oddities.
When the Old State House was restored in the 1990s, the Museum of Curiosities was rescued from the dustbin of history. The gallery features some of Steward’s original portraits and electrification machines, but the menagerie has been faithfully re-created. Mounted animal heads line the walls, swaths of a python’s skin drape a window, and a mammoth alligator lurks from the ceiling. Cases of brightly colored butterflies sparkle, but creepy crawlies, such as the huge Peruvian tarantula, and the albino cobra snaking up out of a basket send shivers up the spine. Among the scores of other artifacts are a mummified human hand and a giant narwhal tusk, but, much as it was two centuries ago, it’s the two-headed calf that is the most curious of the curiosities.
Old State House, 800 Main St., Hartford, 860-522-6766, www.ctosh.org
Christopher Klein can be reached at www.christopherklein.com.