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Hartford, Connecticut

Museum of Natural and Other Curiosities

A wunderkammer hidden on the top floor of the Hartford statehouse. 

The Old State House in Hartford, Connecticut has many of the Colonial charms you might expect, and one amazing collection that is very much unexpected.

Among the expected charms are the beautiful old courtrooms and cabinet/representative chambers that date  back to 1796, when the building was constructed. George Washington would be completely at home here, and an enormous portrait of the first American president, commissioned in 1800, occupies the Senate Chamber.

Yet there is much more to than neo-classical columns and paintings of presidents in this historic state building. Nestled in the top floor of the State House, in a small room that was originally a second floor porch, is an amazing curiosity cabinet.

Though the specimens of the collection were assembled in the 1990s, the museum’s location in the Old State House is historically accurate. The year the Old State House opened, Mr. Joseph Steward, a noted painter of Connecticut’s social and political leaders, established the museum in the attic of the State House. He displayed his paintings and collection in his museum which was “full of natural and artificial curiosities.” His advertisement in “The Connecticut Courant” read, 

“JOSEPH STEWARD, Respectfully informs the public, that his collection of paintings, and some other natural and artificial curiosities are exhibited in the East upper Space chamber in the State House. He likewise presents his thanks to those, who have patronized has design; and any further information of natural curiosities will be very gratefully received.”

Steward’s curio cabinet, one of America’s first museums, grew so popular, so quickly, that he moved his operation to a larger building across the street in 1808. It cost 25 cents to enter, although visitors could receive a discount if they commissioned a silhouette portrait from the resourceful artist.

The collection was dispersed some time after Steward’s death in 1822, but in the 1990s, Old State House staff lovingly reassembled the cabinet based on historic records. They even managed to procure a stillborn two-headed calf from a farm upstate in Michigan.