Atop a grass hill in the village of Hinckley, a brick Romanesque Revival building is home to hundreds of birds, a family of black bears and a lone platypus — among other things. The L.C. Bates Museum, a hub of education for the past 100 years, is a treasure trove of precious items and a glimpse into how curators of the early 1900s displayed the wonders of the world.
“We don’t try to shine the floors and make it all different,” said museum director Deborah Staber, whose become well acquainted with the vast collection over the past 20 years.
For the summer art exhibit, 25 artists climbed the museum’s granite steps to roam through rooms of large wooden and glass “cabinets of curiosities” (in Staber’s words) that have remained relatively untouched since 1920.
The exhibit “Drawing From the Collection,” on display through Oct. 15, is in collaboration with the Maine Drawing Project, a celebration of drawing by art organizations, museums and galleries statewide.
The artists found inspiration in everything from exotic taxidermy to WWI artifacts.
In a room to the right of the museum entrance, a double-wattled cassowary from New Guinea — one of the largest birds in the world — lords over a menagerie of about 600 preserved birds. Straight ahead, descend into a room of mammals frozen in time; and to the left of that, a maze of artifacts, shells and preserved fish, including a blue marlin caught by Ernest Hemingway. Downstairs, minerals lined up on tiers sparkle behind glass, and wagons and plows from the 1800s sit in disrepair.
The beauty and slightly eerie quality of preserved insects and animals inspired many drawings, such as “Dead Bats 1” ink wash drawing on paper by Alison Hildreth and “Birds” pencil drawing by Barbara Sullivan.
“Odd Couple,” a humorous graphite drawing by Abbott Meader, was inspired by the juxtaposition of a bust of William Shakespeare displayed beside a taxidermy moose head — only one of the unusual pairings that occur within the building of cherished objects.
“We thought people would come in and do loose drawings, but the variety is amazing,” said Staber, standing in front of the photo-realistic graphite drawing “Songs of Good Will” by John Whalley. “We’ve had over 3,000 kids draw in here this year because of it.”
Since its inception, the museum’s main function has been educating people, and especially children, about natural and cultural history in one broad sweep.
It all began with a dream.
Celebrated museum founder George W. Hinckley (1853-1950), son of a botanist, started collecting minerals as a boy and aspired to some day collect enough items to compile a museum. He also aspired to one day establish a place to house and children without means.
Rural Maine presented itself as the perfect setting for both — the Good Will-Hinckley Home and museum — both established in the early 1900s.
World travelers that Hinckley knew sent him odds and ends to place behind glass, items that stirred wonderment in the children taught in the classrooms over the years. To do the collection justice, Hinckley commissioned Charles D. Hubbard (1876-1951) to paint dioramas of 32 locations around Maine so that a number of the preserved creatures could be displayed in their natural habitats.
The collections began as a teaching tool for the children of Good Will, and today, the museum welcomes more than 15,000 visitors each year.
Specimens such as the extinct passenger pigeon and endangered red panda bring researchers to Fairfield in search of a few stray hairs for DNA samples. Recently, for the sake of science, they gave away the toe of a hybrid wolf-coyote from their taxidermy collection.
The museum is also the resting place of the Maine state fossil, pertica quadrifaria, a primitive plant that lived about 390 million years ago, discovered in 1968 near Mount Katahdin. The rare fossil represents a significant step in the evolution of vascular land plants, which resulted in numerous modern species, including the pine tree.
Hinckley also managed to gather a collection of artifacts from Admiral Robert Peary, an American explorer whose claim to fame is being the first person to reach the geographic north pole in 1909. He also came in possession of an insect collection from Maine entomologist Martha (Mattie) Wadsworth (1862-1943), which includes butterflies and other insects that are extinct or endangered today. And the mammal room houses one of the last caribous killed in Maine, said Staber.
Though museum employees and their many volunteers work to preserve the overall look of the museum, they also work to preserve the museum’s main purpose: to educate.
Classrooms filled with bug nets, puppets and specimens and the network of walking trails throughout Good Will-Hinckley land are used for “wetland birthday parties” and educational programs. And last winter, museum educators reached more than 10,000 children while visiting area preschools and elementary schools for 10- to 12-week programs.
“One of the reasons we’re doing this, really, is that a lot of science programs have been cut out with the No Child Left Behind [legislation],” said museum educator Serena Sanborn, who brings containers of reading material, bones, specimens, games and animal puppets to schools, offering 10 different science programs, each year. “Most schools don’t have the resources to bring a whole collection of animals into their classrooms, and a lot of schools have been defunded for field trips outside their district.”
The museum receives booklets of thank you letters and essays from children each week.
On May 28, 2009, a boy named Seth wrote to the museum: “Dear Serena, Thank you for letting me see the birds. I learned how big an eagle is. My favorite part is breaking an owl pellet.”
“They’re just so excited to see the real thing. I think that’s what museums do best,” Sanborn said.
The educational outreach has been made possible by a variety of grants. And this past winter, the nonprofit Friends of L.C. Bates Museum attained 501(c)(3) status as another measure to raise money for the museum.
“The museum has to be sustainable,” said Staber. “And we’re on the edge all the time to try to raise money.”
Though museum educators keep the survival of the museum at the forefront of their thoughts, they’ll stop everything their doing to amaze visitors by the treasures at their fingertips.
On Wednesday, museum educator Steve Lemieux took a break from collecting photos for the Maine Memory Network to perform his favorite museum trick. Staber turned the lights off as Lemieux picked up two large clear quartz crystals and began rapidly rubbing them together, disturbing the surfaces of the crystals. Atoms vibrating, the crystals illuminated with a warm, yellow-orange glow, producing their own electricity as they clacked back and forth.
“We have fun playing with things in here, too,” said Staber, smiling.
A schedule of weekly Saturday children’s programs (cost $1) and other information on the museum is available at gwh.org/lcbates/LCBatesMuseum.aspx or call 238-4250. Admission is $2 for adults and $1 for children. The museum, located at 14 Easler Road in Hinckley, is open 10 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday and 1-4:30 p.m. Sunday and upon appointment April–mid-November. Winter hours are the same except the museum is closed Sunday.
Timeline of the L.C. Bates Museum and Good Will-Hinckley
– Good Will Homes began in 1889 with three boys.
– Designed by Lewiston architect William R. Miller, the 1903 building that houses the L.C. Bates museum originally housed the Quincy Boys Manual Training School.
– The school closed in 1914, but transformed into a museum, which had already begun in 1911.
– In 1920, Lewis C. Bates provided funding for improvements to the building as well as museum exhibits.
– Good Will Homes for Boys and Girls had expanded by 1933 to include 16 homes, 11 for boys and 3 for girls. In the town of Fairfield, the headquarters was 2,000 acres of land for farming, recreation and education. In addition to the homes, two grammar schools, a high school, a chapel sprung up in the rural Maine landscape.
– In 1987, the building was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
– In 2003, the museum celebrated 100 years of community service.
– In 2009, because of cuts in state and federal funding and a shrunken endowment, Good Will’s board of directors shut down its core residential and school programs and laid off 110 staff members.
– The Maine Academy of Natural Sciences will open September 2011 on the Good Will campus as the first high school in Maine that focuses on agriculture, sustainability, forestry, work force skills training and independent living. Good Will has hired back several people as the new Maine Academy of Natural Sciences will open on campus this September. The biennial budget approved in June by the Legislature included $860,000 for the school. As of Tuesday, 18 students coming from many communities had committed to attending the school, according to Emaniel Pariser, Good Will’s education program designer. Of the group, eight boys and four girls will live in campus cottages.