Fairbanks Museum Changing With Times

May 1, 2013

One of northern New England’s most unusual natural history museums will soon have a new leader.

Director Charlie Browne is retiring after 34 years at the helm of the Fairbanks Museum in St. Johnsbury.

He leaves behind a museum that is very different from the one he arrived at as a young intern.

This Victorian institution is trying to keep up with the times.

But it is also a window on the past.

Like many wealthy amateur naturalists at the turn of the 20th century, St. Johnsbury industrialist and museum founder Franklin Fairbanks collected natural artifacts from all over the world.

And he hired a local taxidermist to create elaborate glass-encased dioramas that attempt to show exotic wildlife in their natural habitats.

But Program Director Leila Nordmann says the taxidermist, William Balch, didn’t have first-hand experience with, say, flamingoes.

“So he didn’t realize what they actually fed on, Nordmann explained.  “He has them feeding on frogs. That’s just one of those fun quirky things that is just a testament to how long these dioramas have been around and what people knew and what we know now. And how science is always changing. And observation is really important to science.”

So these days, visitors can do more than gaze at critters  under glass. In fact, they can visit without ever entering the museum. For example, Nordmann says, there’s a new crowd-sourcing feature on the website for citizen scientists.

“Our program, Community Observers, is taking four different topics, birds, butterflies, wildflowers and weather, and recording it for signs of change due to potential global warming,” Nordmann said.

Speaking of globes, in the museum there’s a mesmerizing one that shows movement of tectonic plates and weather patterns around the world, with the touch of a finger. But Fairbanks isn’t going to ditch those dioramas or the other nineteenth-century curiosities. It’s just trying harder to bring people in to see them. 

For example, on one recent Friday kids dropped off their favorite stuffed animals to spend the night. And the next morning they returned to find their animal buddies hiding all over the museum, apparently making friends with the bigger beasts on display.

Then April Zajko read a picture story about animals.

She directs a new nursery school at the museum named for the taxidermist, William Balch. It’s another attempt to make the museum more relevant for the next generation. Budding naturalists spend a lot of time outdoors.

Fairbanks Director Charlie Browne, who is retiring, is proud of the Balch Nature School.  He’s also proud of Fairbanks’ new high tech planetarium.

But his biggest legacy, he says, is professionalizing the staff and, in his words, “refining” the collection.

“In good faith, we couldn’t continue to be this community’s attic, “Browne said. “We could not be the keeper of the collections that tell the story of this community’s heritage, for several reasons.

One is that it is not our strength. Another is that the collections that we did have were not on display, by and large.”

So the Fairbanks no longer stores items like a big collection of historic Fairbanks scales or even a horse-drawn  hearse. That has disappointed some local residents, including Peggy Pearl, who used to be the curator of the museum’s history collection.

“Yes, I was very sad because I spent 37 of my years at the Fairbanks Museum,” Pearl said.  “And during that time I put together history classes and a pretty popular festival of traditional crafts. And…from a personal standpoint, I was very sad. I would like to have finished out my years teaching at the Fairbanks Museum.”

Pearl and others have started an organization called St. Johnsbury History and Heritage Center, but it’s having trouble finding a building in which to display the items no longer kept at the Fairbanks.

Meanwhile, the search for Director Browne’s replacement is expected to wrap up by summer.

Disclosure: VPR President Robin Turnau was recently elected a Fellow of the Fairbanks Museum.