By Marilyn Jones
Anniston, a city of 23,000, is home to two outstanding museums: the Anniston Museum of Natural History and Berman Museum of World History. Standing side by side on Museum Drive, visitors will find incredible collections and exhibits bringing everything from dinosaurs and African wildlife to Asian treasures and espionage to life.
Interestingly, both museums began as private collections and grew to become showpiece destinations for the city and Calhoun County.
From Atlantic City to Alabama
On the Boardwalk in Atlantic City, New Jersey, William H. Werner established Wonderland Museum in 1882 to showcase his collection of more than 1,800 bird specimens including mounted birds, eggs and nests; many species now extinct or endangered.
When the museum closed, the collection became the property of H. Severn Regar who began exhibiting it with his own collection of historic objects and biological specimens in Norristown, Pennsylvania.
In 1929, when Regar moved his textile business and family to Anniston, he offered his collection to the city. The city accepted and displayed it at the local library from 1930 to 1965 and then the Calhoun County War Memorial Building until 1976.
When John B. Lagarde offered to donate his collection of mounted African animals to the museum, a much larger facility was needed to house the growing natural history museum.
Local citizens got behind the idea and the building now housing the museum was built. Master plans called for seven exhibit areas, and although its beginnings consisted of the bird and African displays, today the museum is complete, changing only as exhibits are retooled and artifacts added.
In 1991, the museum was accredited by the American Association of Museums. In 2002, the Museum was awarded status as an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution, the first in Alabama to receive this designation.
Touring the museum
Entering the first exhibition area, Dynamic Earth, a life-sized stegosaurus skeleton model, a diorama featuring life-size Pteranodon and Albertosaurus models, and displays of fossils and minerals envelop guests in a time when dinosaurs roamed the Earth.
From pre-historic times, the meandering walkway guides guests through a cave and into the Alabama: Sand to Cedars area of the museum. From the mountains to the seashore, exhibits showcase the natural wonders of the state which is the fourth most biologically diverse in the nation.
Walking into the Attack and Defense area, make sure to look up as well as all around at the animals playing out the life and death relationship of predator and prey.
At the center of the museum are the original Birds of the Americas with case after case of ornately staged birds followed by Environments of Africa with its elephant, lion and other animals. All the birds and animals in the museum, with the exception of the dinosaur models and hippo are real, mounted specimens.
The last exhibit is Ancient Egypt featuring two 2,300-year-old Ptolemaic Period mummies. In 2010, a CT scan of the museum’s smaller mummy, Tasherytpamenekh, was performed. A short documentary follows the process and includes some of the 3-D imagery from beneath the wrappings.
Many natural history museums are dedicated only to dinosaurs, fossils and minerals. Here, natural history is followed from pre-history to present day. The museum is expertly designed and will captivate the smallest child as well as inquisitive adults.
The Berman Legacy
Next door is the Berman Museum of World History. Farley Berman was born in Anniston in 1910. After attending the University of Alabama, he graduated with a law degree from Emory University in 1934. Berman also joined the Army Reserve in 1937 and enlisted in 1941 after Pearl Harbor.
He spent much of his time in the service in military intelligence. He met his wife Germaine, a member of the French Intelligence, while he was stationed in North Africa.
They were married in 1945 and returned to Anniston to make their home and live for the remainder of their lives.
Museum exhibits are from the Berman’s personal collections. Berman is quoted as saying that at the age of six, “I started with a little .22 caliber rifle, one thing led to another and I ended up with the collection I have today.” As visitors will find, weapons were a fascination for Berman, although he collected anything that interested him.
His wife also shared his passion for collecting. They spent four decades traveling the world; he collected rare weapons and she collected works of fine art. Included in the collection are hundreds of bronzes, paintings by European and American artists and Asian art.
In 1992 Farley and Germaine bequeathed their collection to Anniston, with the wish that others could learn the significance of the objects from a historic perspective. The museum opened in 1996.
The first collection is the Deadly Beauty Gallery.
Perhaps pointing back to the Berman’s time in military intelligence, one display is of cleverly disguised guns: a flute, pipe, tire gauge, ink pen and screw driver. The collection also houses personal items belonging to Napoleon Bonaparte, medieval suits of armor and British cavalry and presentation swords.
Of special interest is the Persian sword — called a scimitar — encrusted with 1295 diamonds, 50 carats of rubies, a 10 carat emerald in the hilt and 3 pounds of gold. Another beautiful display is of the coronation set of Czech Kings. The bejeweled crown was made in 1346, and the scepter and golden orb that were made during the 16th century.
The American West Gallery not only offers a visual history of western expansion, but is a repository for beautiful artwork including several Remington bronzes.
Firearms and weapons from the Revolutionary War through the Spanish American War are also on display.
The Arts of Asia Gallery is on the second floor and features many examples of Chinese ceramics and furniture, household gods and intricately carved jade sculptures including those from the Qing Dynasty and Sung Dynasty.
Also on display are artifacts from India, Nepal, Southeast and Southwest Asia, Japan and Korea.
The WWI and WWII Gallery is the last permanent exhibit in the museum and includes weapon, uniforms and such interesting items as Adolf Hitler’s personal silver tea service, parachute dummies and a recreation of a WWI trench with a dugout.
A West Gun, a unique trench weapon used in WWI, is in the collection. There are only two in existence today. This hall also includes a collection of machine guns from the Spanish American War through WWII, as well as Axis and Ally mortars, mines and rocket launchers.
The Berman Museum is a reflection of the Berman’s passion for collecting and a mirror into the art, military conflicts and lives of those who have gone on before us. Take your time; the galleries are filled with priceless treasures, many you won’t see anywhere else in the world.
For more information:
Anniston Museum of Natural History, 800 Museum Drive; (256) 237-6766; www.annistonmuseum.org.
Berman Museumof World History, 840 Museum Drive; (256) 237-6261; http://bermanmuseum.org.
Calhoun County Chamber of Commerce, 1330 Quintard Avenue; (256) 237-3536; http://calhounchamber.com.