PEAKS ISLAND, Maine — The competition isn’t exactly stiff, but that doesn’t mean Nancy 3. Hoffman’s effort to claim a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records hasn’t been a challenge.
The record? Biggest collection of umbrella sleeves. Hoffman is the director and curator of the Umbrella Cover Museum on Peaks Island.
“It may sound easy because we’re the only umbrella cover museum in the world, but Guinness doesn’t easily accept new categories,” Hoffman told the Bangor Daily News. “I’ve been trying for four years and this year they finally accepted the category.”
The small two-room museum has a quirkiness that has attracted both curiosity and exposure — it has been featured on the Weather Channel, BBC and National Public Radio.
“It all started when I had a few umbrella covers around the house that I just couldn’t throw away,” Hoffman said. So she began collecting the extra sleeves discarded by friends and tacking them up alongside anecdotal stories about who owned them and where they’d been used.
That drizzle of an idea began to pour, and the orphaned umbrella cover collection began to symbolize to Hoffman the “appreciation of the mundane” and “finding wonder and beauty in simple things.” In 1996, she established the museum to hold them all.
“People ask me if I have a lot of umbrellas,” she said. “But I don’t really want a lot of umbrellas, because it’s the covers — the throw-away, everyday artifacts that have hidden stories — I’m interested in.”
In order for Guinness to take any potential record-setting collection seriously, it must top 500 items, Hoffman said. The museum has nearly 600 on display, with many more in storage.
Umbrella covers have arrived at the museum from 48 different countries — the most recent coming from Iraq, Slovakia, Vietnam and Panama — and many were constructed by artists using out-of-the-ordinary materials specifically for the Peaks Island attraction.
One is made from British fire hose and one tiny umbrella sleeve came from a Barbie doll. One is hand-knit wool, one is made from porcelain. A bulletproof Kevlar cover is displayed near one woven together from recycled plastic bags.
“People find out about it and want to be a part of everyday history,” Hoffman said. “Anyone can be part of a museum exhibit.”
Even the less elaborate umbrella sleeves often come with good stories. One of the simple black covers, for instance, was found next to a still-standing section of the Berlin Wall in 2007, apparently discarded by a couple nearby stealing a romantic moment. A Peaks Island native who now lives in the German city was bicycling by and picked it up for the museum.
While not all of the sleeves will count toward the record — Guinness isn’t accepting handmade umbrella covers or exact duplicates in the final number, Hoffman said — the collection should have no trouble topping 500.
The covers will be officially counted on July 7 at 11 a.m. at the museum’s 62-B Island Ave. location. Dorothy Schwartz, former longtime director of the Maine Humanities Council, Maine State Museum Registrar Paula Work and 5th Maine Museum Director Kim MacIsaac will serve as judges to verify for Guinness that the whole tally is on the up-and-up.
Hoffman said as news of the record attempt spreads, the collection gets larger.
“People are really starting to send in their umbrella covers for the Guinness record,” she said, pointing to a few she discovered in recent weeks left hanging on her museum doorknob after hours. “2012 has been a great year already for acquisitions.”