Coiled in jars of half-evaporated alcohol, hundred year-old snake specimens glow under soft lights. Nearby, the last cougar killed in New Hampshire sneers with lifeless eyes, early taxidermy technique making it look more like a stuffed toy than a once-live animal. But these attractions are nothing compared to the man-eating clam and four-legged chick, staple oddities at the Woodman Museum.
“We have those old curio cabinets and curiosities that were very common in the early nineteen hundreds,” Curator Thom Hindle likens the visitor experience to exploring the home of an eclectic collector, “You’re gonna go into the first room, you’re gonna stand face-to-face with Lincoln’s saddle and five feet away you’re face-to-face with a ten-foot polar bear.”
Annie Woodman was the philanthropic wife of a successful Dover banker, Charles Woodman. In 1915, she bequeathed a hundred thousand dollars for the creation of a local and natural history and art museum. A year later, the museum opened in two stately brick homes and a 17th century garrison house. A fourth house, was added in 2006. Inside, they creak and groan with age and a hint of mustiness. Wooden and glass cabinets line the rooms, well-stocked with 99 years of donated objects.
“It’s exciting for me," Hindle says, "cause I never know what’s coming through the door. We had a lady come in a couple years ago, she walked up to the counter, plucks this item on the counter wrapped in a handkerchief. I open it up, it’s a tooth from a mastodon.”
Many of the objects have a connection to Dover, Hindle says, but not all. The only requisite is that something be unique and have historical significance. Your grandmother’s bedroom set probably won’t fly here. But your dad’s collection of Springfield rifles will do.
Talk to Hindle for even a few minutes and you understand his devotion to the Woodman. He began volunteering here in the late 1970s. After years of involvement, a trustee asked Hindle to take his place. And now he knows the Woodman better than anyone.
“I knew a lot of the background and all of the changes that have gone on and the stories," Hindle says, explaining how he came to know so much about the Woodman, "in fact an interesting story, we have a bear over on the other side, a black bear, that’s wearing an antique top hat …“
Hindle launches into stories like this a lot. Every object jogs an origin story with an air of uncanniness – down to the survival of the museum itself. Before Hindle got involved, the museum was operating almost exclusively on the interest of that gift of 100,000 dollars in 1916.
“There was no admission," Hindle says, "you could come in, you roamed around on your own, it was mostly senior volunteers – and all they did was open and close.”
That changed nearly 20 years ago when Hindle suggested admission fees. Today it costs 8 dollars for adults and 3 for children. “And then, he says, "we started to try and raise some money, going out to solicit individuals to sponsor and we started to update the exhibits.”
Year by year, the museum edges toward the 21st century. 1950s fluorescent bulbs are replaced with gentle, recessed lights. Handwritten, misspelled labels are swapped for typed placards. The bird display is dusted off. But always, says Hindle, the integrity of the collection is preserved.
That means that every oddity and small treasure remains on display. You can count on seeing the 27-pound lobster, the 1,300-piece mineral collection, the civil war soldier’s letters home.
Next year, the Woodman will celebrate its centennial. And Hindle is beginning to ease away from his charge.
The board hired its first ever executive director this year, Wes LaFountain. He’s also the first person with a museum background to join the staff. LaFountain calls Woodman a well-kept secret - that he wants to spill. Already, he’s working with Dover schools to establish educational programs through the museum. He says this, along with a newly opened art gallery, will help attract a larger, diversified group of visitors.
“We’re hoping to set some standards here," LaFountain says, "and if we’re able to do that I think that will attract its own funding.”
LaFountain says the modernization will be organic and maintain the peculiarity of the museum. A visit to the Woodman, he says, speaks for itself. The trick is getting people in the door.