As It Were: Family's museum was first in Columbus
Although many of central Ohio's numerous museums might seem to be of considerable age, given all the historical items they hold, most of them have not been around that long.
Columbus itself is a relatively recent creation, having celebrated its bicentennial in 2012. Two hundred years might seem like a long time, but towns and villages elsewhere in the country are more than 400 years old – and even that is young compared to other cities around the world.
The major museums of Columbus are mere toddlers next to some other well-known museums.
The Columbus Museum of Art is the heir and descendant of the Columbus Gallery of Fine Arts of 1879. The Ohio History Connection originally was the Ohio Archaeological and Historical Society of 1885. And the Center of Science and Industry, better known as COSI, originally was part of the Franklin County Historical Society, founded in 1948. (A previous local-history organization called the Franklin County Pioneer Association did not have a museum.)
At last count, more than 250 museums could be found in Ohio, with more than 35,000 around the country.
The museums mentioned and many like them welcome visits by the general public and look forward to patronage and support. But one might wonder, where did our earlier residents go for edification and enlightenment in the years before these museums?
Our pioneer forebears found entertainment and diversion in all sorts of places. Initially, Columbus – like most capital cities – had its share of inns, taverns and saloons where one might quench a physical thirst, if not a mental or spiritual one. For the latter, churches and temples offered some solace.
But if that was not sufficient, there was always the circus.
From the earliest days of Columbus, residents were entertained by traveling troupes of performers. Some of these people brought acts, with or without animals, that today we might associate with carnivals or circuses. In other cases, the travelers were more thespian in style and performed plays ranging in style from Shakespeare to slapstick.
But none of these traveling shows stayed for long. By the mid-1820s, there were enough people in town and enough demand to warrant the opening of a crude theater.
The original theater, upon closing, was succeeded by other undertakings, but none of these ventures purported to be a museum – until the Walcutts decided to open one.
The Walcutt family had been around for a while.
John Macy Walcutt arrived in Columbus early in its history. He soon married Mariel Broderick. The Brodericks were early arrivals in central Ohio and had played a major role in the settlement of the area.
John and Mariel Walcutt then became the proud parents of some of the more remarkable children in town.
William Walcutt was the oldest and ultimately the best known of the children. A talented artist and sculptor, he painted portraits of many notable people and created some gifted works in marble and bronze.
His brother, George, was an artist, as well, as were John and Mary. In 1848, George listed himself as being at the "Corner of Town and High Streets upstairs ... all kinds of painting done, except house painting, which will be done if brought to his rooms."
Eventually building on this work, George decided to try something new. Noting that he and his brothers had amassed a number of paintings, he decided to open a place to show them. But it would not simply be a gallery. It would be a museum.
A local history in 1857 described Walcutt's Museum as it existed when it opened in 1851:
"It then consisted of only six or seven wax figures and a few paintings. It for a time attracted as much attention and patronage as could be expected from so small a collection. He has been since then constantly adding to it, until it now comprises over 20 good wax figures, two or three hundred specimens of beasts, birds, fossils and other curiosities and about 100 fine oil paintings, presenting quite a respectable collection."
The museum lasted until 1863. By that time, William Walcutt was an artist of national renown, and his siblings had moved on to other ventures.
This was the first museum of any significance in the city, but it would not be the last.
In addition to the major institutions, Columbus was home to a number of "dime museums." These were inexpensive theaters with a few exhibits included.
They were popular in the 1880s and 1890s, with the World Museum at 217 N. High St. – now among the land used for Three Nationwide Plaza – the best known.
Eventually, vaudeville and movie palaces displaced them.
The final location of Walcutt's Museum's many paintings and wax figures – including "Clark, the notorious axe murderer" – is unknown.
Local historian and author Ed Lentz writes the As It Were column for ThisWeek Community News.