June 22, 2018
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Abbe Museum transports visitors to 1800s Wabanaki encampments

By Aislinn Sarnacki, BDN Staff

Frank Loring, known as “Chief Big Thunder,” just arrived at the Abbe Museum in Bar Habor. The cut-out man, fabricated from a black-and-white photo, is only a shadow of the living, breathing Penobscot guide who entertained Bar Harbor vacationers in the late 1800s. But the long-awaited exhibit would not be complete without his presence.

“Indians and Rusticators: Wabanakis and Summer Visitors on Mount Desert Island 1840s-1920s,” opening Friday, July 8, at the Abbe Museum, brings visitors back to the late 1800s, to a time when the Wabanaki first interacted with summer visitors, or rusticators, arriving on steamship from Northeastern cities in search of fresh air.

“It’s like ye olde Bar Harbor in the 1800s,” said museum Director of Development Hannah Whalen as she stood before the exhibit being constructed Thursday, envisioning the finished scene.

Based on the book “Indians in Eden” by renowned anthropologists Dr. Harald Prins and Bunny McBride, the exhibit — which has been two years in the planning — highlights the role that Mount Desert Island played in the cultural and economic survival of the Wabanaki through photographs, artifacts and hands-on interaction.

The public is invited to a free opening reception from 4 to 6 p.m. Friday, June 8, at Abbe Museum at 26 Mount Desert St. in Bar Harbor. The collection will be on display through 2012.

For the first several decades of enormous hotels on Mount Desert Island, the Wabanaki traveled to Bar Harbor during the summer — as they did even before the summer visitors discovered the island — and set up encampments along the shore, where today’s Bar Harbor Club and Bar Harbor Inn are located.

The Wabanaki — a collective name for the Maliseet, Micmac, Passamaquoddy and Penobscot Indians in Maine — catered to the new island inhabitants in order to stay afloat economically when all of their other resources, such as land, had been taken from them. Using traditional methods and materials, they crafted objects used for Victorian-style living such as sweet grass glove boxes and birch bark log carriers to place beside the fireplaces of vacationers’ grand summer cottages.

“In a lot of these baskets, it’s obvious when you see them that they were made for the market,” said Julia Clark, Abbe Museum curator of collections, noting the fancy patterns and embellishments of the woven grass.

The encampments were pushed to the edge of town in the early 20th century, though Wabanaki artwork and culture were showcased in newspapers as a main attraction of the vacation destination.

Interviews of modern-day Wabanakis, some descendants of the people featured in the exhibit, will be played as visitors navigate through the 1800s environment of encampment sales tents, steamships, birch bark canoe rentals and Victorian Bar Harbor hotel lobbies.

“We’re all about having the contemporary voice of the Wabanaki here,” Whalen said.

The Abbe Museum, named after its founder, Dr. Robert Abbe (1851-1928), opened to the public in 1928 at Sieur de Monts Spring. This year marks the museum’s 10-year anniversary at its downtown location, where there is space for the annual Waponahki Student Art Show. The artwork, in a wide array of media, is created each year by Passamaquoddy and Penobscot students from early childhood education through high school.

The Abbe Museum is the only museum in the world dedicated to telling the story of the Wabanaki, their history and contemporary culture. The two locations attract visitors from all over the world, averaging 25,000 visitors a year. The museum’s collections now represent 10,000 years of Native American culture and history in Maine. They also hold the largest and best-documented collection of Maine Indian baskets in the Northeast, and Bar Harbor residents continue to donate items to the museum from the town’s Gilded Age.

In 1876, architect Henry Richard was traveling to Bar Harbor on a steamship from Bangor to work on George Dorr’s mother’s house when the wares of a Wabanaki canoe builder also traveling on the ship caught his eye. Richard purchased a 19-foot birch bark canoe and two paddles for $35 from the unidentified boat builder. The canoe was passed down through the family until one of Richard’s grandsons donated it to the Abbe Museum five years ago.

“We have a photograph of six or seven people in this canoe, and it’s riding very low on the water,” said Clark.

Though patched with a variety of materials over the years to keep the heirloom afloat, the canoe’s beauty holds and will be on display at the new exhibit as an example of an activity that brought Indian guides and island vacationers together from the beginning.

“Souvenir art,” or items made by Indian artisans, were solely meant to be sold and were often quite different from the more practical items they would have made for everyday use. Most museums didn’t value “souvenir art” when they were established, and therefore didn’t collect it. The Abbe Museum has a large selection of this type of art.

“Whatever decisions were made in the 1930s at Abbe, that didn’t happen and a big piece of history was saved. This is important stuff,” said Clark as she put on white gloves to move the artifacts she’d selected for the exhibit.

Umbrella holders and collar boxes were made of birch bark etched with the native wildlife of the island and scenes of tribal living and stories, subtle ways to infuse their culture and promote understanding between their people and the newcomers.

Though the artifacts will stay behind glass, the museum has purchased replica baskets, hides, miniature canoes and wigwams crafted by contemporary Wabanaki artisans to arrange in the encampment tents for people to handle. Children can pick up a treasure hunt basket, fedora and canteen at the front desk before entering the exhibit and decoding a secret that will bring them to an activity tent for prizes, said Curator of Education Raney Bench.

The exhibit was made possible by numerous Maine foundations, businesses and individuals. It was also an opportunity for the museum to work with several Maine museums and historical societies for artifacts and expertise. The Bar Harbor Historical Society, Bangor Museum and Center for History, Maine Maritime Museum and Penobscot Nation Museum are among the many resources used for this exhibit, in addition to longtime residents of Mount Desert Island.

Prins and McBride, guest curators for the exhibit. Their book “Indians and Eden: Indians and Rusticators on Maine’s Mount Desert Island” will be available for purchase at the Abbe Museum gift shop.

The exhibit opening coincides with The Annual Native American Festival and Basketmakers Market, a centerpiece summer attraction on Mount Desert Island slated for 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday, June 9, at College of Atlantic, 105 Eden St. in Bar Harbor.

For more than two decades, the festival has drawn Native American artists, musicians and dancers from across the state, attracting people to share in the celebration of Wabanaki arts, culture and history.

“It’s fascinating to realize that among the visitors to the festival today are the great-grandchildren of the people who bought baskets from my great-grandmother and her contemporaries,” said Penobscot basket maker Theresa Secord in a recent press release. “Her baskets and mine are in some of the same family homes and collections here on MDI.”

“The festival is a microcosm of what the encampment would have been,” said Clark. “The tradition continues.”

The downtown Abbe Museum serves guests year-round, while the Sieur de Monts Spring location is open seasonally from mid-May to mid-October. Admission is $6 for adults, $2 for children. Admission is free for Native Americans and Abbe members. For information, visit abbemuseum.org or call 288-3519.

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