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The Octagon Room

Part Six: The Third Floor Museum

In 1908 the Trustees commissioned a study on the Library with an eye toward the modernization of its operations. The report, by Frank P. Hill, recommended a number of changes to the Library. On May 10, 1909 William R. Cutter resigned as Librarian and was appointed Librarian Emeritus.  The new Librarian, George Hill Evans, began his employment on October 10, 1909 and over the next few years he worked to implement many of the recommendations of the report. One suggestion was that the Children’s Room needed more space and by 1911 Evans was contemplating moving the Children’s Room to the Octagon room and the Natural History Museum to another part of the building.  In 1913 Evans wrote:

the large, sunny and well-aired room on the third floor is peculiarly adapted for a museum.…At a stroke it eliminates the triple difficulties of the basement, darkness, damp and dust. In this room should be gathered for exhibition the antiques, mounted birds, the herbarium not now accessible, the mineralogical collection, miscellaneous curios, and Woburniana.

The move of the Children’s room to the Octagon was accomplished in 1914 and the historical and natural history collections were joined in their new location on the third floor. The Fowle cabinets were disassembled and rebuilt in the new Museum space which required pairs of cabinets to be attached back-to-back so they could be placed in the center of the room. An additional range of cabinets for the historical collections was built and placed along the west wall in 1916.

Not all of the historical and natural history collections stayed on the third floor after the move though. In 1932 a display was created of the standing desk and sorting trays from Woburn’s first Post Office on the second floor, at the foot of the stairs leading to the Museum, and exhibits were set up in the Military Room on the second floor behind the Local History room and in the other rooms that were the original quarters of the custodian and his family. In 1935 Charles B. Winn’s Civil War uniform and Admiral Charles Park’s Winthrop desk and chairs were displayed with the law books in the basement. Mounted birds were displayed in the Children’s Department in the Octagon room after 1942 and through the 1950’s due to the lack of climate control on the third floor. The Colonial Kitchen display was moved back to the basement in 1954, with the help of the Woburn Historical Society, and placed on a raised wooden platform after the heating plant was replaced and additional floor space gained. The bulk of the Library’s natural history and historical collections though would remain on exhibit in the third floor Museum throughout the twentieth century and right up to 2017.

More than four-hundred separate accessions, comprised of over one-thousand objects, were donated to the Museum over the one-hundred and thirty-eight years since the creation of an Antiquarian Department was first considered in 1879, the same year that the H.H. Richardson Library building opened to the public.  For most of those years Woburn did not have an historical society and the Library became the place to collect the town’s history. The collection has an abundance of objects related to the original Colonial Kitchen, is especially rich in Woburn-related Civil War and Fire Department artifacts, and has many other examples of material culture that inform us about life in Woburn from its founding  through the early twentieth century.  Natural history specimens were also acquired over the years, no doubt inspired by the Cummings Natural History collection. The donations to the Museum continued under different Library administrations, individually listed in the annual Librarian’s reports in the early years as well as  in the “Gift Book” where acquisitions were recorded since the founding of the Museum.

The Librarian’s reports over the years often documented Museum news such as when the third floor gallery space was given a thorough renovation in advance of a visit by members of the Middlesex-Essex Grange in 1930 for the Tercentenary Year’s celebrations.  In 1938, the centenary of C.B. Winn’s birth, some 200 visitors toured the different departments of the library “including the Museum in the attic.”  Visits to view the Cummings bird collection were organized by the Stoneham High School principal in the 1930’s and a bird talk was given for Boy Scouts in 1941.  In 1974, the year when new exhibit lighting was installed, over 1200 people visited the Museum. On May 15, 1979, during the commemoration  of the 100th anniversary of the opening of the Richardson building, hundreds came for guided tours of the building and in 1983 the Baldwin Historical Society, with guests from the Burlington and Stoneham Historical Societies, enjoyed a tour of the Library and Museum. Special programs for the 125th anniversary of the opening of the Richardson Library building, the conservation of the 39th Regiment Company K flag and the 150th anniversary of the Civil War brought many visitors to the Museum in the 2000s. Over the years elementary school groups, as well as residents and visitors to Woburn, went on guided tours of the Museum with the Library Director and volunteers, right up to the year before the Library closed in the winter of 2017.

Today the Museum’s artifacts can be researched in the Library’s Digital Collections resource where a photograph and detailed information on each object can be found. We look forward to the day, arriving soon with our expected reopening in March of 2019, when the Museum collection will return to the Octagon on exhibit in the new “Historic Artifacts” room. We’ll see you there!