November 1, 2010

A Visit to the Fairbanks Museum

When you step through the doors of the grand stone building, Richardsonian Romanesque in style, of the Fairbanks Museum in Saint Johnsbury, Vermont, you enter a time machine which whisks you back to the late 19th century, into a Victorian cabinet of curiosities. Along with the ticket taker, bears welcome you into a space that hasn't changed in over 100 years. I love visiting this natural history museum, and taking guests to see it; it is intimate and personal and quirky, a place where time has stopped.

On the ground floor there are hundreds of birds on display, and dioramas of animals local and exotic, here the noble cats of Vermont––mountain lion (catamount) and lynx (or bobcat?). The aged look of these displays is touching to me; they are very simple compared to the grandeur of those at the Museum of Natural History in NYC.

There's even a display of the lowly woodchuck, the bane of gardeners. Does he look cute, or like a big rat? I love the lichens on the rock adding a naturalistic note, and those stiff black-eyed susan flowers provide a touch of the comic.

Upstairs, a beautiful vaulted wood ceiling adds grace to the galleries marching around the sides of the building. Franklin Fairbanks, the founder of the museum, collected widely, so there is a eclectic range of objects on view, from African instruments to American dolls, Chinese shoes to biblical parchments. There are just a few of each category on view, with old labels looking like they were printed many years ago.

Here are two details from intensely worked, remarkable Chinese embroideries, showing this needle work as a high art. The information on them was scant, so not helpful. (click to enlarge and see details of any image)

There are a small number of interesting Native American objects, including this saddle bag from the mid 19th century. I love the bold patterning of paint on the rawhide. I wonder how many of the shapes are symbols, and how many are there because they simply pleased the artist.

For me, the highlight of the Fairbanks collections is the "Bug Art", images made up of thousands of insects, which bring out the kid in me, the sense of wonder. The nine pieces the museum owns, the entire output of the artist and entomologist John Hampson, were made in the late 19th century. Each work uses 6,000 to 13,000 insects and took years to complete. The designs aren't particularly interesting––along with abstract circular designs are an American flag and a portrait of George Washington––but the sheer doggedness of the activity is amazing.

And, as you can see in this detail, the bugs make beautiful patterns, and are full of color and light.

For a final treat, down in the basement of the museum is the weather station for the "Eye on the Sky" guys, Vermont's premier weather forecasters. This is it, local readers, the place where your essential forecasts originate (that might be Chris Bouchard in the chair).

If you're in the area, I highly recommend a visit to this gem of a museum; and then you can walk across the street to the library, the Saint Johnsbury Atheneum, and see their art collection, another surprising gift to a visitor.


  1. Wow on that bug art! These are just like Sailor's Valentines (made from seashells, but in the same format and patterns).

  2. Altoon, you are masterful! I loved this visit to Fairbanks with you. When I visited last I took pictures also but mine didn't come out nearly so well. You give that old museum such honor and grace. Yes, I love the bug art especially. Thanks for this post.

  3. One of my favorite places, too! It has changed a little in the 50 years or so I've known it -- there used to be a talking myna bird. And there was a big brass disk-style music box that we all found fascinating as kids -- I forget, is that still there? And there are now the special exhibits and the planetarium. But it's pretty much the same, and feels magical still.

  4. thanks for the tour. I'd never heard of bug art before!

  5. Marvelous magical mystery tour! And even the weather guys...we had a similar museum in Chicago when I was a kid, The Academy of Science. I believe their multi-leveled dioramas were instrumental in my nature education. One of the oddest things was a series of panels about going to the moon. But since it lagged behind NASA's actual process, they just left it unfinished, hovering above the gallery in a luminous glow. Thanks Altoon for stirring formative memories!

  6. I'm glad you all enjoyed this tour. It's interesting to know, Susan, as I had surmised, that very little has changed at the museum. I don't remember seeing the music box, but they do have lots of stuff in storage.
    The museum is quite dimly lit, so photographing there wasn't easy, Maggie; I took lots of shots that weren't any good.
    As for the bug art, it's fun to learn about the similarity to Sailor's Valentines, Mona, which I looked up. They're not as complex as the bug pictures, but are quite wonderful. The museum also had an abstract image made of butterfly wings from central Africa.
    My childhood museum memory, Julie, is firstly at the Brooklyn Museum and then the Museum of Natural History. These places do have an instrumental role in our education, and avocation.

  7. I wouldn't have noticed the fakeness of the flowers in the woodchuck photo if you hadn't pointed them out. It is almost like the maker of this diorama was having a bit of fun by overstating the artificiality. The irony probably isn't there but it is amusing nonetheless.

  8. I think the Fairbanks Museum is the oldest natural science museum in the country. It was a favorite place to "hang out" after school when I was a kid in the 60's. Imagine just average st. j kids looking at Netsukis and bug art... for fun! Thanks, Altoon, for putting together this sight.