Holyoke, MA: Dead Frog Circus
Kate Navarra Thibodeau becomes visibly exhausted when discussing her museum’s most popular artifact. As curator of Wistariahurst Museum in Holyoke, Massachusetts, it’s her job to decide whether to install it in a case by the door or tuck it away in a more secluded corner of the museum’s newly restored carriage house: “I don’t want to scare anybody, because some people really are physically creeped out by it. Like, they cannot deal with it … A lot of people convince themselves that they’re not real frogs in there. They are; they’re real frogs.”
Wistariahurst’s “dead frog circus” is exactly what it sounds like: a table-size diorama of some four dozen taxidermic frogs frozen in a circus scene. Some drive chariots pulled by mice, while others flip from the trapeze above them. A mass of others gaze on from the bandstand, silently.
This macabre tableau was created by naturalist Burlingham Schurr in 1927, though no one is sure why. It was displayed prominently alongside other traditionally posed taxidermy at the Holyoke Youth Museum, which occupied Wistariahurst’s carriage house until closing in 1990. The curators didn’t know what to do with it after that. The Wistariahurst mansion, once the home of the wealthy Skinner family, is now a historic house and cultural museum, so the frogs didn’t fit in with the rest of the collection. The staff decided to keep them locked away out of sight.
But the memory of the frog circus lived on, and city residents would constantly pester the museum’s curators about it, hoping to see it again. “We’d get the question ‘Do you still have that frog circus?’ and then I’d roll my eyes and say, ‘Yes, yes, we do,’ and they’d say, ‘Can we see it?’ and I’d say no,” recalls Thibodeau.
When the museum renovated the carriage house as a visitors’ center, the staff was faced with a choice: keep the frog circus out of sight or give it new life on exhibit. After years of being worn down, Thibodeau decided to just give the people what they want. “It belongs in Holyoke,” she says. “It’s the Holyoke frog circus.”
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