It’s impossible to speak with Sandy Martin and not feel her passion for nature. Soon you're drawn into her world, one of animals, trees, rocks, and minerals, one of intimate knowledge of and love for the outdoors.
Ms. Martin seems to have been destined to educate others. She began her own museum at age 13, after all. On Jan. 28, 1955, she opened The Little Nature Museum in the bedroom of her Winthrop, Mass., home. Her mother’s only concern: Who would come?
But people did come, by appointment. In addition to showing visitors the natural artifacts she had collected, Martin began distributing The Little Nature Museum bulletins and teaching nature classes every Friday to groups as large as 30.
Today, many decades later, The Little Nature Museum still fascinates visitors, having moved several times along with its founder. And now it's preparing to move yet again.
Through it all Martin has loved her role as a teacher, sharing her knowledge of the natural world. In just the past three years, more than 3,000 people have visited the museum.
“Sandy is a teacher down to the core of her being. She has so much love and fascination she can pass on, and she has a gift she can share with kids,” says Pat Vaillancourt, a one-time student of Martin who has served on the museum's board of directors.
The young Martin majored in botany at the University of New Hampshire and later found a teaching job in Hampton, N.H. She took her students outside to learn, for which she earned notice in local newspapers. “I was probably one of the first people to take kids outside for class,” she says in a phone interview. “How can you study nature inside?”
Martin went on to earn her master’s degree in zoology at the university – all the while still operating The Little Nature Museum.
When she moved to Weare, N.H. in 1968, The Little Nature Museum grew in size and scope. She welcomed donations to her collections and added some herself. And she had enough land to incorporate outdoor trails as another education tool. “I wanted to show people that woodlots could be managed not only for income, but to preserve plants, animals, and soil, too,” she says.
Thirty years later, The Little Nature Museum gained official nonprofit status. In 2001, it reopened at Gould Hill Farm in Contoocook, N.H. There Martin was able to expand the museum again, employing a formal group of volunteers, adding more donated materials, and establishing regular operating hours.
Martin values interactive exhibits. She doesn't want people just to stroll around her museum. She wants visitors to get involved, to become immersed in nature. She wants them to learn. Visitors of all ages can dig into topics from "How fossils are formed" to "What did an owl have for lunch?" to guessing how native Americans might have used the objects on display.
Today the founder of The Little Nature Museum is again on the lookout for a new location. She has found a welcoming presence in Warner, N.H. “The town seems to rally behind local businesses,” she says. “I really think we should be there.”
The Little Nature Museum will need to raise $75,000 to make the move. So far, Martin has received $26,000 in donations. Some have been surprises. “The other day, a man just drove over here and handed me a check for $2,000!” she says.
To raise the rest of the funds, Martin and museum volunteers are conducting a letter-writing campaign, silent auction, dinner, and membership drive.
One of those volunteers is board member and treasurer Taryn Fisher, an assistant professor of management at Antioch University in Keene, N.H.
"I became involved with the museum because Sandy’s energy and commitment to the museum’s mission is contagious,” Dr. Fisher says in an email. “Sandy connects with her students through her compassionate style and through her love of all things natural. She’s an inspiration.”
Martin continues to apply her drive and energy to The Little Nature Museum and hopes to re-open as soon as possible. She doesn't want the support and donations the museum has received over the years to go to waste.
“This should not die with me,” she says.
• For more information visit The Little Nature Museum website.