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Yesteryear Archives: Natural History Museum

When the old Apple Sales Room Building on Hillside Road is renovated for the Connecticut State Museum of Natural History, it will be the renewal of a tradition that dates to the earliest days of the University.

The first Museum of Natural History began from specimens collected by Benjamin F. Koons and other faculty members. Hired to teach natural history when the Storrs Agricultural School opened in 1881, Koons became principal of the school two years later. In 1893, when the school became a college, his title was changed to president.

"During his years at Storrs, Professor Koons devoted considerable energy and attention to acquiring, preserving, and exhibiting specimens in the Museum of Natural History, which grew to a substantial collection," wrote the late James H. Barnett, emeritus professor of sociology, in a 1980 profile of Koons.

The specimens were kept in the Old Main Building, which had been built in 1890 on what is now a grassy field between Beach Hall and the former Waring Chemistry Building. One room was entirely devoted to the display of mounted birds, animals, skeletons, rocks and minerals enclosed in glass cases. In the center of the room there was a large enclosed cabinet which was so big that one could enter it and arrange the exhibits.

Koons' first professional publication was in geology ("High Terraces of the Rivers of Connecticut," in The American Journal of Science, 1882), but at the time, Natural History encompassed a range of disciplines that are now differentiated as geology, entomology, zoology, mineralogy, etc. In 1883, Koons published a piece on horse-shoe crabs in American Naturalist, noting that, in the previous five years, he had examined at least 1,000 specimens along the shores of Long Island Sound.

Koons' attention to scholarly pursuits waned only slightly, as his duties as principal and then president of the institution occupied his time. His interest in the Museum of Natural History continued, and when he stepped down as president in 1898, he was appointed curator of the Natural History Museum and was promised funds and facilities for developing collections.

Barnett reported that Koons "maintained a lifelong interest in nature and was immensely fond of the landscape of the local area.

Barnett also noted that he began a Wild Garden on the piece of land just behind the Storrs Congregational Church. On the edge of the garden, fronting on North Eagleville Road, a large granite boulder is to be found today on which a bronze tablet was placed by graduates of the Connecticut Agricultural College. The tablet is dedicated to the memory of Benjamin Franklin Koons, who is described there as 'Instructor at Storrs' and 'First President of the College'..." It might also read "First Curator of the Natural History Museum."

Some of the natural history collections that were housed in Old Main were moved to Gulley Hall in the years after it opened in 1908 as Horticulture Hall. Then, when Beach Hall opened in 1929, some of the mounted birds and animals were placed along the walls of a classroom in new glass cases. The remainder of the collection was scattered in other buildings or stored in the attic of Beach Building.

When the Torrey Life Sciences Building was constructed in 1962, some of the mounted birds and animals were placed in an alcove on the third floor. The collections included a skeleton of an Atlantic dolphin obtained by Koons on Martha's Vineyard in the summer of 1876.

The collections have been continuously maintained and used by the University's biological sciences and other departments. Since last summer, with the support of a grant from the National Science Foundation, the specimens that form the research natural history collections are being labeled, recorded and packed for a move to a new research collections facility, part of the Biology building that is under construction next to the Torrey Life Sciences building.

In the 1940s, there were plans to bring parts of the collections back into public view with an on-campus museum. Original plans for a Student Union called for a building that was in the style of the then Wilbur Cross Library. The plans for the Alumni-Student Union had east and west wings, in one of which was to be the Beach Art Collection, in the other, a Natural History Museum.

The museum room in Old Main as it was in 1916

During this time, increasing research activity by biology faculty in what later became the Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology put emphasis on a different sort of natural history material as well - vertebrates, insects and plants that are prepared and stored in a way that is useful for research but not suitable for public display. These research materials grew at a rate much faster than the display materials.

By the time construction began in the early 1950s, the design and uses for the Student Union building had changed, and space for museums was eliminated.

Today's museum of natural history was created in the mid-1980s, as an effort to bring the display natural history collections that began under Koons' guiding hand back into public view. Carl W. Rettenmeyer, now an emeritus professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, recognized that the scattered collections could be a great asset to the University, beyond their continued use to supplement classroom and laboratory teaching. He gathered support from faculty, students and staff and successfully made a case to the Board of Trustees for a new museum. Then in 1985, the museum received the support of the General Assembly, which declared it the Connecticut State Museum of Natural History. During his term as director of the museum, Rettenmeyer more than doubled the size of the display materials.

In October 1998, the Museum gained a new director, Ellen Censky, a world-renowned expert on reptiles, who came from the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh. While the museum is under renovation, exhibits are closed but an extensive program of activities continues, including Family Days, field trips, lectures, workshops, and foreign travel.

The latest incarnation of the museum may be celebrating its 15th year, but it also celebrates a tradition that goes back nearly 115 years.

Mark J. Roy

 

Sources: Three Storrs Pioneers: Benjamin Franklin Koons, Edwina Maude Whitney, George Safford Torrey by James H. Barnett, 1981. This pamphlet and other documents on the University's history can be found in the University Archives of the Thomas. J. Dodd Research Center.