Joseph Steward Museum of Natural and Other Curiosities

August 16, 2012 — Under normal circumstance, the closest you'd probably ever get to the Old State House in Hartford, Connecticut, is signing a permission slip to let your children go there on a field trip…if it were not for one room. One beautiful, inspiring, amazing room that’s worth stowing away on the school bus or even volunteering for dreaded chaperone duty.

Designed by the famous architect Charles Bulfinch, the Old State House was built in the late 1700s. About 150 years later, both the state and city government had moved to new digs and the Old State House at 800 Main Street was turned into an historic site. Today, you can tour through the courtrooms and council rooms where harrumphed such luminaries as P.T. Barnum and Noah Webster, peruse exhibits about Connecticut history and culture, and, if he’s there when you visit, awkwardly avoid the guy wandering around in colonial gear and a powdered wig.

But it’s to a small room on the third floor that you’ll really want to go after you’ve paid the small entrance fee and turned down the guided tour. You’ll know you’ve found it when you see the two-headed calf under glass and the alligator suspended from the ceiling.

Soon after the Old State House was built, Joseph Steward, a painter known for his portraits of eminent citizens, started a natural curiosities collection in its attic, a not-unheard-of practice in those days before the country had natural history museums. A little more than a decade later, the collection outgrew the space and was moved elsewhere in the city before eventually dissipating into other collections, as private collections often do.

However, at some point in the recent past, those persons in charge of preserving Connecticut history had the absolutely brilliant idea to honor Steward’s collection by starting their own collection of curiosities in the same upper space of the Old State House.

As a result, everything in the single room is real…and real awesome. I’m talking stuff like an albino cobra, a stuffed two-headed cow, a two-headed pig in a jar, a whale vertebra, a narwhal tusk, some African tribal masks, and a mummy hand.

There are also some of Steward’s paintings on the walls, but his real legacy is taxidermied piranhas and mounted ungulate heads.

Man, just listing that stuff makes me want to go back. Anybody need a dreaded chaperone?

You should know that the gates of the Old State House
are lined with battle axes.