Museum of Curiosities

Old State House, Hartford


P.T. Barnum was an elected Representative to the Connecticut state legislature, so perhaps it’s no surprise that the refined, Federal style Old State House has a Museum of Curiosities, inaugurated in 1797.  Now, this exhibit certainly doesn’t attain the level of the bizarre that Barnum promoted.  But how often do you get to see a two-headed calf?

In this, the first capitol building in Connecticut, where the no-doubt somber, initial trials of the Amistad’s rebellious captives took place, before moving to New Haven; where representatives from around New England gathered to decide whether to secede from the U.S. in 1814, in displeasure over the war with England; in this august hall with its Gilbert Stuart painting of George Washington…

…you can bet that people flocked instead to see giant tarantulas, an alligator, a whale bone, a shrunken hand, and yes, even a two-headed pig.  How did this come to be?

2014-12-29 13.40.27First, Charles Willson Peale had already done something similar at Independence Hall in Philadelphia.  The Peale Museum was the nation’s purported first museum.  Here, at Connecticut’s State House, portrait painter Joseph Steward was given the right to have his painting studio in the building.  There, he could capture the likenesses of the important political dignitaries working below.

He also had quite the collection of oddities and whatnots from his world-wide travels.  And his museum was born.  He advertised in the Connecticut Courant newspaper an inventory of just what you could see if you visited, and the exhibit remained in place until 1810.

One advertisement

One advertisement, click to enlarge and read

Why did such a popular exhibit close?  Think about it.  The two-headed pig wasn’t preserved, and it disintegrated.  Ewww.  Same with the other organic specimens.  So it took restoration of the building in the 1990s for the museum to be recreated.  The only original items are the portraits that Steward painted, including of the ubiquitous George Washington, as you can see in the photo above.

Now the challenge.  How do you find a two-headed calf, or for that matter a two-headed pig?  The curators checked auction lots.  No luck.  So a little known farm fact came to bear.  Apparently, two-headed-farm-animal births are not all that rare, and in the midwest, a still born, two-headed calf became the museum’s highlight, this time appropriately preserved.

2014-12-29 13.39.42This isn’t fake.  It’s not a Barnum & Bailey manipulated display.  Stuff happens.

At least I spared you a picture of the two-headed pig fetus in a jar.  Ewww.

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If it all becomes just too much for you, you can always take a seat at one of the original Legislators’ desks, catch your breath, and reflect on just how good you’ve got it!

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One thought on “Museum of Curiosities

  1. How do you locate these topics? AND why preserve the poor animal’s Janus like heads for all to see forever and ever amen? There is a reason I never went into Believe it or not Ripleys museum. My my.

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