Hutchison Hall Specimen Collection – Rochester, New York - Atlas Obscura
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Rochester, New York

Hutchison Hall Specimen Collection

Antique skeletons and taxidermy creatures were found crammed in a university closet.  

About five years ago, when the faculty at the University of Rochester went looking for more office space, staff members opened a closet and found not brooms and mops, but a gorilla skeleton, a Narwhal tusk, a poorly taxidermied beaver, a rare tuatara suspended in alcohol, and more than 300 skeletons.

These unusual finds were once part of a great, apparently forgotten natural history museum.

In the 19th century, the university housed one of the most important natural history museums in the country. Its patron was a Rochester local, professor Henry A. Ward of Ward’s Natural Science Establishment, the premiere supplier of natural history museums.

While Ward and his partner Edwin Howell began in mineralogy, Ward is best known for the skeletons and the taxidermy that were sold to educational institutions around the world. He supplied specimens to the big sites like the Smithsonian, the American Museum in New York, the Field Museum in Chicago, and the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia.

But Ward’s specialty was setting up whole museums—or cabinets—for universities and other educational institutions like Vassar College, Wesleyan University, and the University of Virginia.

Most of those museums closed sometime between the 1950s and 1970s. Once, the natural history museum was an instrument of scientific investigation, but with the rise of biology labs and experiments in chemistry and physics, these museums increasingly fell by the wayside. Their obsolete collections were tucked away in closets for decades, but today they are being rediscovered by scientists, historians, and artists alike.

The University of Rochester has a special place in this history. By 1879, only Harvard and the Smithsonian had larger collections than the university. But by the 1960s, the museum was closed and the Rochester collection was stored in a closet in Hutchison Hall. Thanks to Bob Minckley, Melissa Mead, and others, a portion of the once-forgotten collection is on display on the second floor of Hutchison Hall. It has been cataloged, some of it has been 3-D scanned, and still more is waiting to be researched through the Ward archives that are held in the Rush Rhees library.

Know Before You Go

Hutchison Hall is on the campus of the University of Rochester. The displays are in a hallway on the second floor.