College museums: majors in birds to geology

Inside James Newman Clark Bird Museum

Freethinkers buck conventional thinking and make their way through the world in unusual ways. This is the way I peg James Newman Clark.

The Meridean farmer, southwest of Eau Claire, in the late 1800s successfully grew ginseng and goldenseal, both medicinal plants. Taxidermy of birds began as a hobby, then turned into a second business.

He sold bird skins and eggs for as much as $5 each, depending upon the species. A wood duck brought $3.50, for example, compared to 75 cents for an ivory-billed woodpecker.

By the time he died at the age of 86 in 1928, Mr. Clark had amassed a collection of more than 600 bird mounts in his farmhouse. Today around 500 still exist, most are at least 100 years old, and you can see them for free at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire whenever classes are in session at Phillips Science Hall.

Four dioramas with birds surround the building’s planetarium. Most are Wisconsin species, but in two display cases are exotic, tropical birds from South America. Lynn Young Janik, museum manager, says the collector acquired them through sales and trades of other birds.

“It was popular to trade bird skins, eggs and feathers during that time,” she says, and the taxidermist kept extensive notes with recorded observations about his birds. He did business throughout the country, and sales prices for his wares were certainly lucrative for the time.

The collection “absolutely amazes me,” Lynn says. “Here he was, a bird lover, shooting birds” and preserving them for history as well as personal satisfaction and gain. The mounts include three passenger pigeons, a species that turned extinct in 1914.

Explanatory text accompanies some of the displays. The collection is housed at UW-Eau Claire because Mr. Clark’s children – Raymond and Paul Clark of Rock Falls and Mrs. George Hintermeyer of Eau Claire – donated it to the biology department in 1959. While their father was alive, Lynn says “apparently his collection was known throughout the area, and people would visit his home to see it.”

Many mounts remain in amazingly good shape, but Lynn notes that cardinals and other birds with red feathers are fading. Improvements would require private donations of replacement mounts or financial donations (made through the UW-Eau Claire Foundation: www.uwec.edu/fndn, 715-836-5630).

The James Newman Clark Bird Museum in Phillips Science Hall, at the end of Roosevelt Avenue, is open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays and 9 a.m. to noon Saturdays during the academic year and summer. For more: www.uwec.edu (search “james newman clark bird museum”), 715-836-3523.

Wisconsin college campuses are perhaps best known for their free-admission art museums – including the newly enlarged Chazen at Madison’s UW (www.chazen.wisc.edu, 608-263-2246), the Haggerty at Marquette University (www.marquette.edu/haggerty, 414-288-1669) and the Grohmann at the Milwaukee School of Engineering (www.msoe.edu/grohmann, 414-277-2300). Bequests from alumni often help establish such ventures.

Other types of collections are one-of-a-kind repositories for research and teaching. Admission is free at this trio of examples.

Logan Museum of Anthropology, Beloit College, began with a college trustee’s acquisition of a 3,000-object collection from the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893. Now 300,000 objects, representing thousands of years of cultural history, are cataloged and stored here.

Stone Age tools excavated in Africa to wood-carved war clubs from Tonga “help us better understand the transitions of man,” says William Green, director. About 5,000 items are on display in “The Cube,” a glass storage vault that the public can view. For more: www.beloit.edu/logan, 608-363-2677

UW-Madison’s Geology Museum exists because of an 1848 Board of Regents decision to exhibit geological and mineral samples that are indigenous to Wisconsin. The collection grew from there, even though much was lost – including the bones of Civil War Gen. William Sherman’s horse – during a fire in 1884.

Meteorites and dinosaur skeletons are collection highlights today. That includes a 15-foot-long mastodon skeleton discovered on a farm after heavy rains in 1897. Some of the fossil, rock and mineral samples are unique to Wisconsin; others come from around the world. For more: www.geology.wisc.edu, 608-262-1412

At the Museum of Natural History, UW-Stevens Point, are rock/mineral collections to dioramas about wildlife and ecosystems, plus thoughtful explanations of cultural, racial and ethnical diversity.

Artist James Frechette Jr.’s carved and painted figurines, 12 to 20 inches in height, anchor an exhibit about Menominee tribal history and cultural. Another display concentrates on animal and plant life on an African savanna. For more: www.uwsp.edu/museum, 715-346-4211.