Dead and Exotic Things: The Fairbanks Museum and Planetarium

July 1, 2013 — All right. Another natural history museum. I’m not sure how to punctuate that statement to let you know that it’s 100% sincere excitement and not jaded sarcasm. Or at least 95% and 5%. Maybe 85% and 15%.

But I have been to quite a few (check out the end of this post for a sampling). And in some ways they’re all the same. Dead animals staring glassily, cultural artifacts lying under glass. But, without fail, there’s always something unique to that museum worth digging out, and the stuff that you can find in most other museums is stuff you’ll never tire of. Tell me that fossilized dinosaur footprints or taxidermied polar bears bore you, and we’ll fight.

And that’s exactly the case with the Fairbanks Museum and Planetarium. Still, even with all that experience and stupid amounts of Internet research, I never know quite what to expect when I visit these museums.

And the Fairbanks Museum surprised me from the outset. I rolled into St. Johnsbury, Vermont, and discovered a Main Street that takes idyllicness, Vermont’s largest natural resource, to suspicious levels. Like I have to assume they hold sacrifice lotteries once a year to maintain that level of idyllicness. I’m not at all comfortable with mutilating the word idyllic, but what can I do? Vermont’s fault.

The museum building is one of the highlights of Main Street. It’s in a 120-year-old red stone monster that looks like it could be an ancient church or the hall of a secret society or the tomb of a rich eccentric. The building, with its tall enigmatic tower, is covered by carvings, tipped by gargoyles, and guarded by stone lions.

Inside, it has the coziness of a small museum, but showcases a high-tier range of small exhibits. So it’s more varied than most low-budget local history museums, but is not the labyrinth of high-fidelity rooms you’ll find in major museums. In fact, the interior of the Fairbanks Museum looks like you just stepped into one of the wings of a mansion. Which is basically what it is. It was founded in 1889 by a wealthy St. Johnsbury native named Franklin Fairbanks who had the building constructed specifically for his burgeoning collection.

The exhibits are arranged in a single long, two-story, open room. The ceiling is bowed and ribbed, making me feel like I was in the throat of some massive, mahogany beast, an impression made more apt by the thousands of dead animals around me that had suffered my same glorious fate.

The bottom floor is devoted to taxidermy, including an amazing collection of birds, and it also has a large interactive globe that allows you to do cool topography and meteorological visualizations. Mostly, I just hit buttons at random to make it change colors really fast. That’s what I’d do if I ruled the world, too.

The top floor is dedicated mostly to cultural items from around the globe, give or take a dinosaur bone or two. That’s where you’ll find an Egyptian mummy case and some mummified animals, Civil War artifacts, Native American pieces, Asian weapons and armor, old science and medical instruments, and antique dolls of the sort that crawl into your nightmares and scream “Mommy” down into your hollow soul.

In fact, it’s so varied that I definitely missed really cool stuff, despite how neatly the collection is ordered and in how relatively small a space. For instance, I only found out after I left that on display is a set of doll furniture made by Mark Twain. Distracted by the dolls, I assume.

A cat mummy, a crocodile mummy, and an empty mummy (for reasons unknown).

I think the biggest find for me in this museum is a handwritten letter by Robert Louis Stevenson, author of Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. In it, he deeds his November 13th birthday to a girl who had the unfortunate handicap of being born on Christmas Day. She was from St. Johnsbury, and Stevenson learned of her tragic plight when he met her in Samoa while her father was stationed there as a diplomat.

All told, the collection features 175,000 objects, most of which can be pleasingly surmised from various points on the upper floor, where you can pretend to be a wealthy magnate surveying what you have done with all your extra cash since it’s physically impossible to swim in it like Scrooge McDuck.

You’re going to have a good time here.

As long as you stay away from the dolls.

Couldn't bring myself to post anymore of them.

More natural history museums visits:

Harvard Natural History Museum (Massachusetts)

American Museum of Natural History (New York)

Joseph Seward Museum of Natural and Other Curiosities (Connecticut)

Field Museum (Illinois)

Sant Ocean Hall (Washington, DC)

Libby Museum (New Hampshire)

Woodman Institute Museum (New Hampshire)

Nature Museum at Grafton (Vermont)