1907 American Association of Museums Meeting Identifications

Presentation by Miss Delia Isabel Griffin

Delia I. Griffin
(see note below)

The following paper was presented by Miss Delia I. Griffin, Director of the Fairbanks Museum of Natural Science, St. Johnsbury, Vermont. She illustrated it with lantern slides. The Proceedings volume includes three photographs of the Fairbanks Museum of Natural Science’s building and exhibits.

Certain problems can be worked out where one has personal touch with the community, which are impossible in a large city. How a few of these problems are being solved by the Fairbanks Museum I wish now to submit to you.

A generation ago a barefoot boy on the hills of Vermont became interested in birds and flowers, and started a home museum, like Rollo of story-book fame. His interest, his collection, his years, and his wealth increased, until seventeen years ago he erected the Fairbanks Museum, endowed it with funds sufficient to keep it running perpetually, and arranged for a Board of Trustees to manage it.

Today, although Col. Fairbanks has passed to the Great Beyond, his spirit of interest in children and of love for all that lives in God’s open air is the controlling motive of the institution which he founded, and its activities all follow lines which he suggested.

The museum, situated in northern Vermont, is in the midst of a farming community, and directly in a manufacturing village of 7,000 people. One thousand men are employed in the scale shops. Most of them own their homes, possess small kitchen gardens, and are typical of the American workingman at his best. In this environment our chief aim is to bring brightness, breadth of view, and interest in the artistic and elevating side of life to the children of these men.

This purpose is largely accomplished by means of lessons in nature study, which are given to the school children of the town. One week out of each month, the museum class-room is the center of interest. The groups of children, each accompanied by its teacher, come from the public schools, and lessons are given them by the Director of the museum—lessons, not lectures. The pupils have as active a part as they would in any school exercises, asking and answering questions, and thinking out the problems which flower or bird may suggest. In general, also, they provide the material for their study—flowers or plants, seed or fruits, or the common minerals of the region. Usually some preparation in the line of out-of-door study of the plant in its environment or its relation to insects, is requested when subjects are assigned for the lessons, a week in advance. Perhaps instead, an experiment is suggested to follow the lesson, and the young people, after studying lime rocks, make mortar and plaster, and after a series of lessons on gypsum, make casts of various objects. One class this winter made a cast of the hand of the prettiest girl in the room, and while it may not have been a success from an artist’s point of view, that class gained an intimate knowledge of the properties of plaster-of-paris, which will never desert its members.

For this same series of lessons, the museum contributed all its variety of gypsum specimens, and the beauties of satin spar and alabaster added much to the pleasure of the students. Often the entire class is taken directly to the cases which are opened, and all specimens which can be handled without injury, are given to the pupils.

Among the subjects studied at these lessons are the following: “Seed Distribution,” “Crickets and Grass-hoppers,” “Dry and Fleshy Fruits,” “Caterpillars, Moths, and Butterflies,” “Goldenrods and Asters,” “Ferns,” “Preparation of Trees for Winter,” “Defensive Organs of Plants,” “Tree Buds,” “Germination of Seeds.”

From 150-200 class lessons are given each year and they are supplemented by school work carried on by the teacher. In order that this may be done in the best manner, teacher’s meetings are held frequently during three months of each year.

Once a fortnight, after school hours, the teachers come be grades and are given definite instruction in the line of work laid out by the Director. Both subject matter and methods of teaching are given, and books and scientific publications are read or loaned to the teachers.

By request of the state superintendent of schools, an “Outline of Nature Study” has been written by the director, and this, printed by the State Board of Education, is in the hands of every teacher in the state.

Second only the class work in interest and popularity, are the bird walks which are conducted in the following manner: from the middle of April to the end of June, groups of children about a dozen in number, meet at the museum steps at seven o’clock. They are at the school building ready for school nine and meanwhile have tramped from one to two miles finding the spring birds. Any where from fifteen to forty birds may be seen and heard, according to the weather conditions. Some member of the museum force accompanies each expedition, and every child who wishes is given an opportunity to go about four times a season. Frequently children come to the museum during the day to closely examine a bird that could not be well seen during the morning tramp, and their interest is increased by a small case placed in a prominent position near the entrance door and containing the newest bird arrivals. Only thirty-five specimens are allowed in the case at any one time, and both children and adults who are studying birds for the first time find it far easier to identify a perplexing bird visitor from this case than from the larger general collection.

These birds are also loaned to the schools, but there is comparatively little need for loan collections, as owing to the compactness of the town, the children can so easily come to the museum itself.

An interesting outgrowth of the bird walks is the Junior Audubon Society which meets at the museum once a month, from January to June, in two divisions. Each section has its child officers who preside, read reports, make motions, and in every way carry on the business of a society with much dignity and solemnity, besides presenting a literary program.

The June Meeting is given up to a bird contest for determining which child in each division is most thoroughly acquainted with the birds. The prizes, five-dollar gold pieces, are offered by one of the bird-loving citizens of the town. For a month before the contest every hour of the day sees eager children in front of the bird cases and the words most familiar to the director are “Please can you tell me what this bird is? He has a brown back”—and then follows a description, remarkably accurate when one remembers the age of the observer, and usually the members of the office force with wits sharpened by constant guessing are able to lead the questioner to a specimen and receive a satisfied “Yes, that’s just the bird.”

The interest in insects is not so universal as that in birds. Still, each September and October sees the caterpillar boxes well inhabited by the “crawlers” the children have brought. These cages are placed on tables in the main hall and are the center of interest during those months. The children bring fresh leaves daily and are very faithful in caring for their protégés. Their interest is keen when the chrysalids and cocoons are formed, and frequently most of the hours out of school are occupied in watching cecropia caterpillars fashion their winter quarters and fasten themselves in. And the pride of the individual child whose special crawler finishes his work in a day while another of the same kind takes two days for the task is interesting to see.

Much home observation is stimulated by this museum work, and during the late summer and fall all sorts of insects are carefully brought to the director for identification or to display, then carefully taken home and watched for future developments. One child of ten with a little help from his aunt, and with some special good fortune from Dame Nature, has followed the whole life cycle from caterpillar to caterpillar, of the white tussock moth and has now fifty or so young crawlers which have moulted for the second time.

The last large item of educational work to be mentioned is the flower table. From the time the first arbutus blossoms on a southern hillside until the witch hazel lets fall its crinkled yellow petals late in the autumn, a procession of wild flowers is to be seen in the museum. The specimens are arranged in clear glass vases, on tables in a prominent part of the hall. Frequently fifty specimens are displayed at a time, and often all the varieties of one flower are to be seen the same day. Last week the violet table held twelve varieties, all found within a five-mile radius of the museum, and each September our fifteen goldenrods are exhibited at the same time.

In the case of rare flowers, some of the orchids for instance, only two or three flowers are displayed, often with a note warning the public of the danger of gathering them in quantity and so aiding in their extermination. The literature of the “Wild Flower Preservation Society” has a place on this table, and many of its leaflets are taken by visitors.

All the flowers are labeled with both common and scientific names, and if a child brings a specimen, his name also appears. A large number of the flowers are brought by the children; many are gathered on the bird walks, and by the museum force when searching for herbarium specimens; and some of the rare contributions come from ladies, who, in their leisurely drives over the country roads of this vicinity, find these beautiful specimens.

This flower display is easily the most popular feature of the museum work. Visitors come to it first and linger by it longer than by any other exhibit; several invalids watch eagerly for the reports of it in the weekly papers; and the children, competing with each other to see which shall bring the largest number of flowers, gain a familiarity with the specimens and the fields and woods in which they grow. More valuable yet is the healthy influence which absorbs the children’s minds and the love of nature to which they unconsciously grow.

The activities are not large, you see, but neither is the museum. It is, however, the home of every young person in the town, from the little four-year-old who refers to the giant cast as the “Humptydon” to the academy senior who studies the Brandon fossil fruits.

Every one has a personal sense of ownership, and rightly so, for Col. Fairbanks at the dedication said to the children, “I want you to understand from this time on, that this building is to be yours, and that you are to guard its interests.”
And they do.

[Subsequent laudatory comments pertaining to Miss Griffin’s paper were made by W. P. Wilson, Director of the Philadelphia Museums, and A. E. Frost, a native of Vermont who lived in Pittsburgh. Frost, who is not listed as an AAM member and was not present for the roll call, would appear to be one of the interested public attending the AAM sessions.]

Dr. W. P. Wilson: This is the most admirable presentation of the work of a museum which I have every listened to, and I am sure we feel deeply grateful to Miss Griffin.

Dr. A. E. Frost: I am from Vermont, and I lived in my boyhood in St. Johnsbury. I have been a resident of Pittsburgh for thirty-five years. I well remember the time when the only thing known about St. Johnsbury was the fact that the Fairbanks scales were made there. I am glad that we have had a representative of the old town in Pittsburgh to tell about another feature of the life of St. Johnsbury. I have boyish recollections of Mr. Fairbanks. He took a kind interest in all youth. The beginning of his museum was in the mansard of his residence, and he often took us there. It is to me an unexpected pleasure to hear of the manner in which those early beginnings have been subsequently developed. It brings back the memory of my early home in a very pleasant way.

Note to identification

Delia I. Griffin is provisionally identified in the above photograph. The appearance of this woman is closest to Griffin’s image in the group photograph made at the 1909 AAM Meeting, in which her identity is specified. Our efforts to obtain other images of Griffin to corroborate her identity have been unsuccessful.


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