Sandra Waddell Martin ’62 ’68G remembers her neighborhood mail carrier coming to the door of her parents’ house in Winthrop, Massachusetts, one day in 1954. Martin was just 13, but her career as a naturalist and educator was ready to begin, thanks in part to that day’s delivery.
“The mailman was standing there holding a box, and on top it said, “Live lizards,’” she recalls.
The mailman looked confused, but Martin had a plan. The lizards, along with a couple spotted turtles, a collection of fossils, butterflies and insects, and a hunk of petrified wood from the Petrified Forest National Park, were all about to become exhibits in a museum Martin was poised to open — in her bedroom.
“I was interested in anything having to do with nature,” she says. In early 1955, she opened the Little Nature Museum to the public and began a six-decade quest to share her love of learning and devotion to the natural world with, well, everyone.
“I feel like I’ve been teaching all my life,” she says. “I’ve always had a hands-on approach. I find I learn better that way.”
It’s an approach Martin has shared with generations of visitors to the museum, from those early days in her childhood home until now, at the museum’s newest location next to the Mt. Kearsarge Indian Museum in Warner, New Hampshire. The museum’s exhibits, all designed and curated by Martin, encourage visitors to look, listen, smell and touch the world around them.
When Martin arrived at UNH in the late 1950s, she was already a few steps ahead of her peers. She took classes at the Boston Museum of Science throughout her adolescent years, and when the Little Nature Museum opened, she began teaching weekly science classes for children from around the region.
“Friday afternoons during my study hall in high school, I’d be preparing for the class I’d teach the next day,” she says.
At UNH, Martin’s interests were wide-ranging at a time when specialization was the norm. She took courses in fish and wildlife management, geology and forestry. Along the way, she unexpectedly found herself blazing a trail for women in the sciences. “I started (at UNH) studying fish and wildlife, and I was only one of two women in the department,” she says. “Why did they think women couldn’t do this?”
A few years later, she returned to the university to earn a master’s degree in zoology. Her studies at UNH became, and remain today, an integral part of the Little Nature Museum.
“I still have all the things I collected when I was a student there,” she says.
The museum has followed Martin everywhere, from her home in Winthrop to a classroom at the Hampton Academy Junior High School, where Martin spent three years as a teacher after graduating from UNH. From there, the museum moved to Durham and then to Weare, where Martin ran the museum out of her home for three decades. After a short stint at Gould Hill Farm in Contoocook, the museum reopened in late 2014 in a renovated horse barn in Warner.
“The museum is still little,” she says. “But it’s huge compared to what it was.”
The museum may have changed, but Martin’s boundless curiosity and excitement about the natural world have not. On a recent Saturday morning at the museum, Martin picks up a small display case with various insects and butterflies, all pinned and labeled, inside. It was one of the first things she made for the museum more than 50 years ago. Like the museum, and Martin herself, the display is still a work in progress, evolving to accommodate each new discovery.
“Just the other day, I found a big beetle, some kind of stag beetle, living at the base of a pine tree,” she says excitedly. “I think I’m going to add it to this case.”
Originally published in UNH Magazine Fall 2016 Issue