The Natural History Society of Maryland houses a wall of cloudy-eyed snakes, drawers full of fossils, rocks, and skeletal remains of behemoths, shelves displaying Native American artifacts and glass-enclosed cases with mounted birds. More than 50,000 specimens, some preserved for more than a century, pay testament to the state's rich natural heritage and the society's tenacity at saving them.
"We are about natural history here," said Ginger Mihalik, executive director of the society founded 80 years ago in Baltimore. "Live is not the focus for the plant and animal specimens we have."
Since losing its one-time home at the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore, during the 1970s when administrative offices were expanded, the collection has gathered dust in a Charles Village townhouse that offered the public no access. The society found a more spacious venue in Overlea in the 9,000-square-foot former catering hall that it purchased three years ago. Members plan to renovate the two-story structure on Belair Road into the Maryland Naturalist Center, where "kids can get unplugged and connected with nature," said Carl "Bud" Herb, society treasurer.
"We want a hands-on facility with hands-on programs, many of them designed so children can learn," Herb said. "We want visitors to hold a thousand-years-old shark tooth and feel the sharp edges. People can examine birds from the 1800s and see how they have changed over the years."
The project will revive the society, established in 1929, and the neighborhood, said Mihalik and Herb, who each live within walking distance of the circa-1913 building that originally was Overlea's town hall.
When it came on the market, residents were concerned the site at a busy crossing would attract another gas station or liquor store.
"Those were the last things we wanted to see on this corner," said Mihalik. "People were so excited about the possibility of this museum they were doing cartwheels."
Proximity to the beltway and to the city, with a metro bus line that stops at the front door, makes it an ideal location. The county has included the project in the recently adopted Overlea Fullerton master plan. "It will be a draw for the neighborhood and a stable institution," Mihalik said.
Since its founding, the society, which has about 120 active members, has acted as the steward of Maryland's natural history and remains dedicated to conserving its vast collections. Artifacts provide evidence of the whales and sharks that inhabited Maryland's coastal waters thousands of years ago and of the Native Americans who hunted, fished and camped along the state's rivers.
A glass display case filled with birds indigenous to the state sits in the lobby of the building. Its tarnished brass plate notes the specimens were shot, mounted and placed on perches set in the case in 1850.
"It's all so Victorian," Mihalik said. "They look so natural, exactly the way you would see them in nature."
The delightful display was nearly lost to the society, until the case was discovered in a barn in Oregon. That plate led to a call to the society and an offer to ship it back to Maryland. Not all collections find their way from collectors to the society. One Marylander's collection of 16,000 butterflies has been divided among eight other state museums and will never be reassembled. Heirs to a collection of rare fish had no idea what to do with it and sent it to a landfill.
"These items need to stay here in Maryland and we need to house them here at the society," Mihalik said.
Members plan exhibit space, classrooms and conference areas, and possibly a tower for bird-watching. They would hang a hefty whale skeleton - now on loan to a North Carolina museum - from the rafters in the great hall above a display of rocks, minerals and fossils that includes a mastodon tooth unearthed in Towson. The Native American axes, arrowheads, carved pipes and painted pottery could stay permanently on exhibit. Researchers would find space to peruse dozens of rare nature books. Visitors would see that astounding wall of snakes, many collected during a statewide reptile survey in the 1970s and all preserved in jars filled with formaldehyde.
Several clubs, focused on various aspects of natural history, including a herpetology group, are meeting at the building. Scientists can conduct research there and Mihalik has scheduled a few programs, but a grand opening is about $150,000 and a year away.
"We are still in the birthing phase and working on grant applications," Mihalik said. "Our main focus now is to get this building open so we can run programs and protect our collection. We have had no place to archivally preserve history, but hopefully, this building will change all that. And it will change Belair Road and make this community a destination."