Behind a modest home in south Eugene sits one of the richest private natural history collections in the state. It won’t, though, be around for much longer.
Unpublicized, unfunded and unnamed, what might best be called the Wisner Museum — not after its current owner, but his uncle, who began it — includes thousands of books, uncountable photographs and slides, and mounted specimens of birds from Oregon and the northeastern United States.
It even includes a taxidermied bird that’s been extinct for more than a century.
A former biology teacher at the University of Oregon, Wisner long thought he would one day find an institution to take over the collection that was put together more than half a century ago by his uncle, Edmund Wisner, in a barn on family property in New Jersey.
The uncle collected everything from bird specimens to sea shells, and opened his collection to tour groups, though he never publicized it as a museum. “He set his museum up in the stable area of the barn,” Wisner says. “And my dad and I helped add things to it.”
Herb Wisner always planned on giving the collection away to some group that might keep it and make it available to the public.
But the sad reality is that very few institutions of any kind are interested in taking on collections like this without a substantial amount of cash to pay for housing and maintaining them. And the cash isn’t there.
So Wisner, now 93, has begun parting out his collection, selling some books on eBay and to interested individuals, donating other books to the library, giving an egg and bird nest collection to a university in Washington state, offering a few things to family members, and gradually clearing out the roughly 1,000-square-foot building he and his wife, Ruth, built in their back yard to house it all.
The little museum is wonderful in a way that museums so often today are not. It smells old and musty; its very disorganization invites you to explore its hidden treasures.
Those treasures include glass-fronted cases of mounted birds, bound copies of old Pacific railroad surveys, dozens of field guides to birds and plants, stacks of magazine articles, Wisner’s own collection of 35mm color slides, and the largest collection of bound copies of National Geographic I’ve ever seen.
But my favorite is that extinct bird. It’s a Passenger Pigeon, a species whose billions of individuals once filled the skies of the eastern United States before they were hunted to extinction. The last known Passenger Pigeon, named Martha, died at the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914.
Wisner, an accomplished birder, got his Passenger Pigeon as part of a collection of stuffed birds from a woman in New York state; it was only later that he began to wonder exactly what the bird was. It looks something like a Mourning Dove, but definitely isn’t, he concluded. “The only solution seems to be that it’s a Passenger Pigeon.”
Being the careful biologist that he is, Wisner doesn’t guarantee his identification, but adds that not one of the bird experts he’s shown it to has been able to suggest a plausible alternate theory of what the bird is.
Passenger Pigeon specimens are actually fairly common; a book published in 1963 listed about 1,500 of them.
Wisner expects that this one was collected in the late 19th century. He had a taxidermist here clean it up a bit — a wire was protruding from the bird’s head when he got it — and today it looks surprisingly lifelike.
Meanwhile, he’s selling off, and the museum itself will soon go extinct.
“I can’t keep this going forever,” he said. “And I don’t want Ruth and the kids stuck with sorting it all out.”