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Collections & Connections

150 Years of the Wisconsin Academy
Interior James Watrous Gallery shot of the Collections & Connections exhibit

Building a specimen collection of plant, animal, and mineral resources was a matter of scientific interest and civic pride for the Wisconsin Academy’s 19th-century founders. Such specimens were more than curiosities: they were physical documents of the region’s natural resources and important teaching tools. For frontier states like Wisconsin, these collections played a fundamental role in attracting settlers and directing economic development. 

However, the history of the Academy’s collection is tantalizingly murky. Written documentation is sparse, and no photographs of the collection have been found. From the minutes of early Academy meetings, we know that the first donations to the collection were a “wolverine from Juneau County and a lynx from near Madison, in addition to rocks and soil from Sauk County,” and that the collection was displayed at the Wisconsin State Capitol building. We also know that the Academy’s mineral collections were moved to the new Science Hall building after the University of Wisconsin’s own natural science collection was destroyed in the 1884 Science Hall fire. 

But the whereabouts of the rest of the Academy’s collection is unknown. It’s possible that the collection never left the State Capitol and was lost when the building was destroyed in a catastrophic 1904 fire. One can hope that the cabinet specimens were integrated with the Wisconsin Historical Society collection or dispersed among UW–Madison departments, but we haven’t found evidence to support this hope.

As we began planning an exhibition about the Academy’s history, it seemed only natural to invite artist and former James Watrous Gallery director Martha Glowacki to devise an imaginative recreation of the lost Academy cabinet. We thought that this “cabinet of Wisconsin curiosities” might blow a little dust from the Academy’s remarkable history, raise important questions about the means and ends of scientific investigation, and inspire us to reflect on the important work of the Academy’s founders.

To this end, Martha’s cabinet includes specimens and instruments that represent the collections of nine early Academy naturalists and historians: Increase A. Lapham, Thuré Kumlien, Philo Romayne Hoy, Thomas Chrowder Chamberlin, Roland Duer Irving, Charles Van Hise, Edward Birge, Harriet Bell Merrill, and Charles E. Brown. The objects illustrated here are just a small sampling of the treasures Martha uncovered in local museums and university collections as she searched for this elusive collection from the Academy’s past. 

Three fossil plant specimens dating to the Cretaceous period, collected in Kansas by Francis H. Snow. Collection of the University of Wisconsin–Madison Geology Museum. Photograph by Carrie Eaton.  These three beautifully preserved fossil leaf specimens, dating to the Earth’s Cretaceous period, are approximately 80 million years old. At this time, flowering plants were first becoming widespread. Of particular interest to current Wisconsin residents, the fossil leaf on the lower left comes from a buckthorn tree. All three specimens were acquired by the University of Wisconsin Geology Museum in the 1880s.





Set of numbered glass vials filled with colored water from the Edward A. Birge archives, ca. 1920–30. From the collection of the University of Wisconsin Zoological Museum. Photograph by Craig Brabant.  UW–Madison limnologists Edward A. Birge and Chancey Juday developed innovative experiments and tools to measure the penetration of sunlight into Wisconsin lakes during the 1920s and 1930s. This set of colored water samples was likely used as a quantitative way to describe the color of water at different depths.


Specimen example page from The Mosses of Wisconsin, Collected and Prepared,  by Increase A. Lapham, 1859. Collection of the Wisconsin State Herbarium. Photograph by Mark A. Wetter.   Increase A. Lapham was a prolific collector as well as an author. This very special handmade book was most likely created as a reference collection for sale to others. It contains one hundred pressed specimens of different mosses and lichens Lapham collected in Wisconsin.

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Jody Clowes is the director of the Academy's James Watrous Gallery and arts editor for Wisconsin People & Ideas magazine.

Martha Glowacki is a sculptor and installation artists whose work is shown on a regional and national level. She is particularly interested in the intersections between visual art and the natural sciences.

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Madison, Wisconsin 53726
Phone: 608.733.6633


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3rd Floor, Overture Center for the Arts
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Madison, WI 53703
Phone: 608.733.6633 x25