The young man who grew up in a bedroom in Hartland during the 1960s collected toys and magazines. A family living in the St. John Valley in the 1880s used a root cellar to store food during the winter. A Bangor dining room was the gathering place for a family on the day in June 1938 when boxer Joe Louis won a legendary fight against Max Schmeling.
Those experiences, some of which were taken from real-life occurrences, were likely shared by people all over the state. Any Mainer with similarly strong ties to home — with memories of a childhood bedroom, or recollections of time spent in the kitchen or around a radio or television — will find something to touch them in “At Home in Maine,” a new long-term exhibition at the Maine State Museum in Augusta
The 5,600-square-foot exhibition opened Saturday, just in time for Thanksgiving. The timing seems fitting for an exhibition about what is important to the families of Maine, from their kitchens to their attics and almost every room in between. More than 1,000 objects from the state museum’s collection are on display, some for the first time, in what amounts to the museum’s biggest show in 20 years.
It’s also the first time in recent history the museum has focused on home life. Current exhibits explore how Mainers work (“Made in Maine”) and the state’s natural history (“12,000 Years in Maine”), but none had yet addressed the domesticity of Mainers.
“I think in a lot of ways this exhibit is more important than [‘Made in Maine’],” chief curator Laurie LaBar said last week as museum staffers were putting the finishing touches on the displays. “If you look at your own life, if you ask people what’s more important, your home life or your work life, they’ll say home life. Finally, we’re interpreting that here. Not everybody worked in a mill, not everybody worked in a shoe shop, which are things we interpret [in other exhibits]. But everybody has a home, and there’s a lot that can be shared by people looking at this exhibition.”
The museum staff is hoping visitors have a sense that they’re coming home, or walking back in time to a world they recognize from their youth. The goal, says assistant director Sheila McDonald, is to generate conversations among visitors.
“Researchers have found out museums are the most believable ways people learn history,” McDonald said. “They trust museums, because they’re seeing real objects. They really are interacting with the objects. The other thing is, [people] come as a social experience. In all likelihood, probably what we remember is what we share with each other and the memories we share with each other, rather than, ‘oh, we saw this or that exhibit.’ [‘At Home in Maine’] I think, will do that more than any other exhibit we have here because it relates to people’s lives.”
The exhibit, which is on the fourth floor of the building that houses the museum, state archives and state library, has been in the works for several years. First came a massive renovation that included asbestos removal and which offered a blank canvas for curators and staff.
Almost all of the eight sections of the exhibition represent by a typical room in a house. The first, however, highlights domestic objects brought to Maine by immigrants; there’s no specific room attached to it, but it has become one of LaBar’s favorite sections of “At Home in Maine.”
“We think of Maine as kind of a monochromatic place, but a lot of different people have helped make Maine what it is today,” she said. “At the same time Maine was changing them, they were changing Maine.”
Each of the subsequent sections are whole rooms re-created by museum staff. They offer a slice of history come to life.
“Heart of the Home” establishes the kitchen as the center of domestic life and contains two re-created rooms. One, an 1880s kitchen which might have been seen in the St. John Valley, represents a winter kitchen. The trapdoor to the root cellar, which was a common storage area for food in that era, is visible in the floor of the right side of the exhibit. The display opposite is a summer kitchen from midcoast Maine, circa 1943.
The next section, “Comfort and Sociability,” has a re-creation of the dining room of the W. Edgerton and Arvella Talbot home in Bangor as it appeared on a June day in 1938. LaBar said Gerry Talbot, who grew up in the home and went on to become Maine’s first black legislator, recalled during oral interviews sitting in the dining room and listening to the Louis-Schmeling fight.
“Reflections of Ourselves” focuses on the objects Mainers placed in their homes to reflect their identity, status and culture; it includes an 1880s-era parlor from Parsonsfield. Another area, “Keeping House,” highlights items used to maintain a home, complete with a 1910 bathroom from Bethel. Outside of the bathroom display is a chain that makes a flushing noise when pulled.
The bedroom of former Hartland resident Birney Moore, as it appeared in 1966, was lifted almost fully intact — toys, magazines and all — from his boyhood home and serves as the highlight of the “Family Ties” section.
There’s a camp scene to illustrate the idea of “Home Away From Home” with the sounds of loons, lapping water and a motorboat, as well as a 1960s den where museum visitors can rest for a few minutes in green-, orange- and yellow-hued chairs that were popular from that period. Eventually, the museum plans to set up home movies in this section.
The exhibition comes to an end in “The Attic: Memory and Discovery.” Visitors walk into an all-wood room that looks like a typical storage space with a loft. The room will eventually serve as a staging area for educational programs directed at the 30,000-or-so schoolchildren who visit the museum each year.
Museum staffers know they can’t cram everything on to exhibition labels, and they’re hoping visitors will understand the deeper meaning behind some of the displays, what LaBar described as “layers of interpretation.”
“For example,” she said “in the  kitchen, we’re talking about seasonality, [the idea of a] summer kitchen and a winter kitchen. But it’s 1943, so we have things like blackout lights, blackout shades, ration books, a wartime cookbook. So there are a lot of things educators will be able to interpret, and also things grandparents will be able to talk about with their kids and grandkids.”
That’s apparent in the bathroom, too, as it brings up issues of indoor plumbing creating the notion of private spaces. On the surface, the camp scene is about how Mainers create a home away from home, but also brings up the notion of tourism and how second homes have brought out-of-staters into Maine.
The sharp details all over the exhibit are astounding, from the actual jars of canned blueberries, made by a museum staffer, in the 1943 kitchen to the intentionally squeaky boards in the attic. There’s so much to see that visitors might repeat visits to catch elements such as the textured plaster ceiling in the 1960s sitting area, the mismatched moldings in Birney Moore’s bedroom, and the cat under the stove in the Acadian kitchen.
The exhibit also gave museum staff a chance to display some of their favorite items in the collection, such as an electric machine from about 1820 which served as parlor entertainment as its users got shocks from the static electricity. There’s a handmade stuffed animal called Bouncer the Dog and a pair of clogs brought over from Liverpool.
There’s a quilt on display, too, which will be changed every six months or so to lessen damage to the fabric. The ability to make changes to some of the little details in the exhibition will help keep it fresh, McDonald added, especially because the museum expects to keep the displays erected over the long term.
That concept is, in a way, similar to our own homes. For those of us who are returning home for Thanksgiving, we might notice small changes, but the house will always be home – and that’s a feeling we all have, no matter where home is.
“We’re hoping people will share a lot of memories with their families,” LaBar said. “There are so many commonalities. A lot of these rooms will look familiar to people.”
The Maine State Museum is still seeking funding for educational programs and interactive displays related to “At Home in Maine.” For more information, call the Friends of the Maine State Museum at 287-2304.