Maine State Museum celebrates Wabanaki creativity

Posted May 18, 2009, at 6:12 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 30, 2011, at 11:25 a.m.

The exhibit “Uncommon Threads: Wabanaki Textiles, Clothing and Costumes” will open 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday, May 23, at the Maine State Museum in Augusta, according to co-curator Bruce Bourque, chief archaeologist and curator of ethnology at the museum. Admission will be free all that day.

Special curator-led tours will be given 11 a.m.-1 p.m.

The more than 100 textiles in the exhibit are the work of Maine’s four American Indian groups: the Penobscot, the Micmac, the Maliseet and the Passamaquoddy.

“Historical examples of Wabanaki textiles are scattered, scarce and fragile,” Bourque said. “Our concern has been that, fragment by fragment, more will slip away over time. We hope this landmark exhibition will help rescue from obscurity one of North America’s most dynamic indigenous textile traditions.”

The museum-going public has become familiar with American Indian textile traditions from many regions of North America, but those from the Maine-Maritimes region have remained largely unknown because they are rare, old and scattered around the globe, Bourque said. The artifacts in the exhibit range from textile fragments from 4,000-year-old archaeological sites to decorated ceremonial costumes worn by chiefs in the 1700s and 1800s.

A coat in the exhibit was located in Australia and other items were discovered in basements of museums located outside the United States.

“Most of the artifacts we bought on the open market,” Bourque said, “and they were coming from Europe. These textiles are appreciated for their beauty, but had no historical context.” The exhibit will help to remedy that situation.

Maine American Indians, Bourque said, “lived in a woven world.” They wove tree saplings into fish weirs. They wove the webs of snowshoes from animal sinews. They wove trees and grasses into the shelters they lived in. Even birch bark sewn together and fashioned into canoes qualifies as a kind of textile, he said.

The exhibit, which Bourque co-curated with Laureen LaBar, also of the museum, will include written descriptions, paintings, artifacts and documents relating to Wabanaki textiles and costumes, including traditional peaked caps, quilled moccasins, beadwork, ribbon applique, wampum and twine textile items.

Bourque said he had been thinking about the project since the 1980s when museums began to develop exhibits of the costume of indigenous people. Since then he has searched for Wabanaki textiles and for “historic evidence of the social and political contexts in which they were worn.”

Bourque and LaBar have co-written a companion volume for the exhibit, also titled “Uncommon Threads: Wabanaki Textiles, Clothing and Costume.”

The exhibit will be on display through May 2010 at the State Museum before traveling to other museums in the United States and Canada.

Entities providing funds for the exhibit are the Maine Community Foundation, the Belvedere Fund, the Copy Foundation and Henry Luce Foundations, the Maine Humanities Council and the National Endowment for the Arts.

For more information about the exhibit, call 287-2301 or visit www.mainestatemuseum.com.

Snippets

• Tapestry weaver Barbara Burns of Cundys Harbor and New York, will exhibit her work, “Portraits in Tapestry” through June 30 at Maine Fibertarts Gallery in Topsham. A gallery talk is set for 1:30 p.m. Sunday, May 31, with an opening reception at 2:30-4 p.m. that day.

Burns has been a weaver since 1994 and has studied tapestry at West Dean College in England. Subjects of Burns’ work include Anne Frank, Golda Meir and Frida Kahlo.

Gallery hours are 10 a.m.-4 p.m. weekdays.

• Those who enjoy embroidery of various types will find a wealth of free patterns, charts, online classes, tips and resources at www.caron-net.com, one of my favorite Web sites. Click on For Kids to access children’s needlework projects, including a soft sculpture snowman, hardanger-style designs, T-shirt embellishment, a patchwork pocket, a “Quiet — Genius at Work” sampler, a teddy bear, and my favorite, a sampler bookmark.

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