Few childhood dreams make it past the threshold of adulthood. Sandra Martin’s dream to teach others about the natural world — one she’s kept alive for nearly 60 years — is a remarkable exception. In fact, her dream just keeps growing.
In 1954, Martin (then Sandra Waddell) was a 13-year-old science geek living in Winthrop, Mass. By far her favorite activity was taking classes at the Boston Museum of Science. “They focused on all kinds of things like electricity, reptiles and limnology (the study of bodies of fresh water),” says Martin. “We had the use of equipment and the best teachers I’ve ever had in my life. They were so passionate and made you love whatever subject they were teaching. I couldn’t get enough.”
To say this passion rubbed off on Martin would be an understatement. That year she paid tribute to her mentors by opening The Little Nature Museum in her bedroom with natural items she’d collected, including mounted insects, rocks and fossils. Her mother worried that no one would come. But Martin was determined to share her love of nature with as many people as possible.
She began handing out bulletins advertising her budding museum. Even in those pre-social-media days, word spread quickly. The following year in 1955 she opened her collection to the public and began teaching after-school science classes in her parents’ living room. Up to 30 kids at a time came, and she was featured in newspapers.
When Martin went to college at the University of New Hampshire to study botany, her younger sister, who was still in high school, kept the museum alive at home. After Martin got a teaching job in the early 1960s at the Hampton Academy Jr. High in Hampton, N.H., the museum moved with her to the school.
It moved again when Martin went back to UNH to get a master’s degree in zoology, and continued following her as she moved around the state over the next few decades, relocating first to her home in Durham for three years and then to her next home in Weare for 31 years. All the while her collection kept expanding with things she found and from donations, and she continued leading tours and teaching classes. It was in Weare that Martin also developed outdoor nature trails around her home to further ignite visitors’ passion for the earth. “I don’t see how anyone can really learn much about nature if they’re sitting inside four walls,” says Martin.
When Martin moved to Hopkinton, N.H., in 1998, the museum closed for a while before opening up again at Gould Hill Orchards in Contoocook in 2000. There, the museum finally had a dedicated public space, and its interactive displays and exhibits continued flourishing. By then there were collections of fluorescent minerals, pine cones, sands from around the world, and mounted mammals, as well as exhibits on bats, lichens, corals and a one-of-a-kind display of plant galls (abnormal growths caused by infection, bacteria, or insects). Martin also established regular operating hours and recruited a formal group of volunteers to help keep the place running.
Not surprisingly, more and more visitors streamed in — everyone from school groups to the merely curious. “The last three years we averaged about 3,000 visitors a year, which is a lot since we are only open from the end of June to the end of October,” says Martin. “I often look up at the sky and wish my mother could have seen this. She wouldn’t believe we had that many visitors.”
A couple of years ago, though, some changes at Gould Hill Orchards made it clear The Little Nature Museum would need to move again. The new orchard owner had begun logging along the nature trails, making them unusable, plus he proposed moving the museum to a smaller building on the property that wasn’t big enough to accommodate larger groups. Martin decided to put The Little Nature Museum into storage in a former horse barn at Mt. Kearsarge Indian Museum in Warner, N.H., but continued running workshops and classes while she searched for a permanent home.
For a time, Martin thought she’d found the perfect solution when a farmer in Hopkinton offered to put up a building on his property and rent it to the museum. But the town nixed the idea of charging admission, which Martin says is absolutely essential to the museum’s survival.
After months of hunting for a new space, Martin recently got good news. The Indian museum’s board of trustees voted in November 2013 to welcome The Little Nature Museum permanently to its grounds, allowing it to reopen in the horse barn and charge admission. “Native Americans were the original environmentalists,” says Martin. “As an environmental museum, we will certainly complement that.”
These days Martin’s main focus is raising enough money to write the museum’s next chapter. With the aid of volunteers, she is currently running a capital campaign to properly renovate the barn and possibly hire a volunteer coordinator and/or tour guides. So far, more than $32,000 has poured in, just under half of the $75,000 needed.
Through it all, Martin, who is approaching 73, has never lost her passion to educate people about the planet — if anything it has only grown stronger. “My teachers at the Boston Museum of Science certainly have left an inspiration that I hope to continue passing on to other people myself,” she says. “This is why I have the museum and why I want to keep it going.”
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