A modern Maine explorer

Maine Museums: Art, Oddities & Artifacts

Janet's book will be available June 6.

As my friends and family can attest, I’m a bit nuts about museums. Day trips and vacations are never complete without discovering a new museum or two. One of the things I love about working in public relations here at the Museum & Theatre is giving tours – when I guide someone through our exhibits, I find that I get to rediscover it for myself, too! Over a year ago, I met writer Janet Mendelsohn, who was working on a book about museums in Maine. Janet had visited us before to write this neat article for the Boston Globe about our Camera Obscura, but this was the first time she explored the Museum & Theatre from top to bottom, asking insightful questions and observing our visitors at play. She went on to do that with dozens of other museums and has now published the resulting book, Maine Museums: Art, Oddities & Artifacts. I wanted to learn more about her journey through Maine and get tips on which museums to hit on my next day trip, so I asked Janet to share some of her findings with us.

Lucy:   What made you decide to write about museums in Maine?

Janet:  When I travel, I visit museums—Boston, New York, Paris, Madrid,

Janet Mendelsohn (photo by Stu Rosner)

 Atlanta, Washington. While obviously there are great collections in all those cities, my favorites are in Maine. People here feel and express a more powerful connection to both this place and the past. The stories they choose to tell through fine and folk art, history and memorabilia, from logging equipment to scrimshaw, is the story of Maine and the nation and it’s most often told on a personal level. In local history museums, we hear from mill girls and women struggling to hold on to their homes when their young husbands went off to fight in the Civil War. Here at the Children’s Museum, kids can ‘try on’ what it’s like to be a farmer or to work on cars. Moreover, Maine’s museum directors, curators, staff and volunteers are excited about what they do. They’re happy to answer questions, even if you don’t have a reporter’s notebook in your hand. It was a fun project.    

Lucy: For many people, being a travel writer sounds like a dream job! How did you find success in this field? 

Janet:  I wish I could say I’m one of those lucky journalists who get to travel the globe and someone else picks up the bill. I’m not. But as a freelancer, when I travel I can often interest an editor in a related story and get paid for writing it, which is what I love to do most. My first freelance piece about Maine, about 12 years ago, was for Maine Boats, Homes & Harbors, a wonderful magazine. I had gone to the Isles of Shoals, off Kittery and Portsmouth, to visit the recreation of Celia Thaxter’s Island Garden. It’s so remote and simple but magical, with old fashioned flowers like those she described in her book. I tried to capture that sense of distance, real and historical. I guess it worked because I’ve been writing for Maine Boats ever since.

Lucy: Clearly you have a love for museums (and, given my occupation, so do I!). What do you say to someone who thinks that museums are old-fashioned or stuffy? How would you convince the contemporary consumer of the relevance of museums in our current, high-speed culture?

Janet: Another reason I wrote the book is to help kids and adults discover

Nowetah's American Indian Museum in New Portland displays Native American arts and crafts of all the Americas. Photo by Janet Mendelsohn.

 that museums today are fun. In this economy, they can’t survive if they don’t get creative about using new technology, installing multimedia exhibits, and planning events that engage people (including parents!) with shorter attention spans. We’re all so attached to our cell phones. Video games keep setting the bar higher for visual effects. Plus many of us have less money to spend on travel and entertainment, so it had better be worthwhile if they’re going to get us in the door. Museums in Maine are now lending visitors iPads and installing high tech kiosks to enhance what we see and do in the galleries. Many have terrific summer and vacation week programs for children and adults, special events like logging competitions and military reenactments. As for relevance?  Until you see a great painting or the craftsmanship of a Native American basket up close, you can’t appreciate its beauty. Until you’re face-to-face with textile looms, whaling gear or ice harvesting tools, you can’t appreciate what those jobs were like.   

Lucy: The “oddities” part of the title makes me very curious! What did you discover on your journey through Maine that was most surprising – your “oddest oddity,” shall we say?

Janet:  I’d have to say the Umbrella Cover Museum on Peaks Island, although the Bigfoot specimens at the International Cryptozoology Museum are right up there. But they’re not the only ones. [Note: the Criptozoology Museum is just a few blocks west of us on Congress Street! -Lucy]

 
 
 

Would-be sea captains and sailors find plenty of hands-on activities at the Penobscot Marine Museum in Searsport. Photo courtesy of Penobscot Marine Museum.

Lucy: Are there any hidden gems for families – spots parents could take children that seem to be under the radar?

Janet:  Maine Maritime Museums in Bath has a one-weekend family boatbuilding workshop, a pirate ship to climb all over and lighthouse and nature cruises on the Kennebec. Penobscot Marine Museum in Searsport has a hands-on marine science lab and the “Peapod” where kids can dress up in 19th century clothing, play with ships models and learn to tie knots. The Wendell Gilley Museum of wood carving, on Mount Desert Island, has art, natural history and wildlife protection programs, including carving lessons for ages 11 and up.  

Lucy: Which destination was your personal favorite? Was there one place you connected with more than any other?

Janet: You want me to choose? The Portland Museum of Art and the Farnsworth Art Museum are national caliber, the Colby and Bowdoin college art collections probably are, too. The Saco Museum brought history alive for me with its personal stories. The Osher Map Library collection is full of exquisite rare art that served a practical purpose. Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village was especially interesting. It’s the only active Shaker community left in the world. I could go on and on.

Lucy: Are you already thinking about your next writing adventure? What topic would you like to explore next?

Janet:  I recently visited Louisa May Alcott’s home, Orchard House, where she wrote Little Women. I keep thinking about how I felt standing beside the little desk in her bedroom where she wrote the book. It’s telling me something but I’m not yet sure what.

Want to win a signed copy of Janet’s book? Visit our Facebook page and keep an eye out for the question we post on June 7. Answer it and you’ll be entered in a drawing to win a signed copy of Maine Museums: Art, Oddities & Artifacts (Countryman Press).