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History's New Home

Natural History Society Moves to New Building, Where It Can Showcase Collection to The World

Sam Holden
NATURE BOYS: (l-r) Joe McSharry, president of the Natural History Society of Maryland, and Charlie Davis, chair of the society's board, show off natural treasures housed in the organization's new building.

By Chris Landers | Posted 1/2/2008

The new home of the Natural History Society of Maryland is on the fall line that runs down the East Coast, where the Piedmont meets the Atlantic Coastal Plain. Looking out across an enormous asphalt parking lot on Belair Road in Overlea, just across the county line, Charlie Davis can read the history of the world.

From the upper end of the fall line's quarter-mile slope, Davis has seen Middle River and the Chesapeake Bay on a clear day, and watched hawks circling overhead, using updrafts from the change in topography to glide along their migratory routes. Water flowing down from the Appalachian Mountains speeds into rapids as it dips down along the fall line, a source of power for early settlers and a transition point from land to water transportation, and on to the sea. The clay layers of the coastal plain, forced up onto the hard Piedmont rock, are ideal for preserving dinosaur bones.

"It looks a little barren out here," Davis says. "But we've seen all kind of things."

Davis, who chairs the Natural History Society of Maryland's board of directors, hopes the new building, which will house a diverse collection of fossils, shells, insects, and minerals the society has been amassing since 1929, will help others see the natural world around them a little better, even in the city.

"We want to fill the gap--when someone gets interested in some aspect of nature and they want to know more," Davis says, "to have a place where people can meet with others who are already interested in the same thing, and are more knowledgeable." The Maryland Naturalist Center, as the building is to be called, will also be a base of operations for the society to bring nature-education programs to neighborhoods and parks around the state.

That's still a ways off. Davis and Joe McSharry, president of the society, won't even speculate about when the new building will be open to the public. The building has to be renovated. ("Green renovation," says Davis, who describes himself as a freelance ecologist. "There's no other way to do things.") And money has to be raised; the society depends on private donations for its funding. The society bought the 9,000-square-foot building, which has also served as a market and catering hall, last year with a half-million-dollar bank loan.

The society, formed to advance scientific research in the state, broke from the Maryland Academy of Sciences in 1929, over what Davis says was a different vision of science.

"The group that came [to the Natural History Society] were interested in nature education, in children's education, and natural history aspects of science," he says. "The main focus of the Maryland Academy of Sciences was heading in a technology direction. All the members of their board were the heads of the companies in Baltimore--which is exactly what you want, but it started being used to sort of sell Baltimore, to become more of a tourist phenomenon. Their museums had displays of bituminous roads, to attract people to Maryland. . . . They were looking at technology and calling it science, but science is more of a process."

The academy, in its current incarnation as the Maryland Science Center, has to some extent come around to the same way of thinking. In 2006, the downtown museum had a budget of some $55 million. The Natural History Society, which most recently inhabited a Charles Street rowhouse, made do that year with about $55,000. Over the years, the society has moved around--for a time it ran a museum in Druid Hill Park--and had varying levels of activity. McSharry says there are currently about 130 members, subscribers really, to a peer-reviewed journal, The Maryland Naturalist, devoted to natural science in the state.

The new building, Davis says, will provide a meeting place for the disparate groups of specialists that have broken off from the society over the decades. The Maryland Herpetological Society is still based out of the society headquarters, for example, but Davis and McSharry hope to lure bird-watchers, plant lovers, and just about anyone else with an interest in science back to the fold. The group hopes to provide meeting space for scientific groups, and to show off its collection, which was off-limits to all but researchers at the Charles Street location.

Inside the Overlea building, a front room houses a few items from the collection: a glass case containing 45 birds native to Maryland (and someone's pet Puerto Rican parrot) shot and prepared in 1850, a Native American ax head found in Gardenville, and some mastodon teeth. "Things like that," Davis says. "Things you'd find on the streets of Baltimore."

The society never stopped collecting--items came from amateur naturalists and other museums--and some of the collection is on loan to other museums. Private donations still come in. The glass case full of birds, for example, is a fairly recent acquisition from a barn in Cecil County. Davis laments the missed opportunities as well. A collection of rocks and minerals left behind by a geology professor who passed away went to the Baltimore County landfill.

"We actually went to the landfill and talked to the machinery operator about where it was," Davis says. "He was ready to tear up the landfill for us, but we had no place to put it. Our house on Charles Street was full to the brim."

The bulk of the collection is in the basement the Overlea building: drawers filled with butterflies, birds, and fossils, stuffed, mounted, and cataloged. A stuffed family of bald eagles stares across the room at a raccoon eating a bird, next to skull that looks disturbingly humanoid. "That came from the Academy of Sciences," McSharry says. "We have the documentation: `One gorilla skull, with bullet hole.'"

For Davis and the rest of the Society's volunteers, though, the most important use for the collection is as a reference for the world outside the building.

"If you look up natural history in Webster's, it'll say the study of nature from an amateur perspective," Davis says. "That's how it's defined today. If you look back to the 1800s, it would have been `how scientists study the world.' This group has always had that flavor. . . . The interest has always been in helping people discover what's right around them."

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