Despite its title, Curious Footprints: Professor Hitchcock’s Dinosaur Tracks & Other Natural History Treasures at Amherst College is not a traditional exhibit-by-exhibit guidebook for Amherst College’s Museum of Natural History. Instead, it’s a companion book that gives the reader a tiny taste of the museum’s long history and its behind-the-scenes contents.
The first half of the book is an essay by science writer Nancy Pick about the life of Edward Hitchcock. Hitchcock was a local boy who made good – born in Deerfield, MA to poor parents in 1793, he grew up to become one of America’s first geologists and the president of nearby Amherst College. During his term as college president, Hitchcock raised the money for two buildings (or “cabinets”) to house both the college’s growing collection of zoological specimens and the fossil trackways he had collected from all over the Connecticut River valley. When Hitchcock died in 1864, the college had the largest footprint collection in the world. (It still does.) And the separate cabinets eventually merged to become the current Museum of Natural History.
The second half of the book contains photographs of museum specimens taken by Frank Ward as they were getting packed up for the museum’s move from its former home in the old Pratt gymnasium to its purpose-built space in the new Geological Sciences building. Most of the specimens Ward photographed aren’t on public display – they’re stored in the research and teaching collection of the museum. So his photos are a peek into the guts of the museum – a chance to see objects that are usually only brought out of their metal cabinets for students or visiting scientists.