The concept of transformation — of one thing becoming another — is particularly strong among native groups in the Pacific Northwest. It’s a concept Hudson Museum Director Gretchen Faulkner sees every day as she works to put the finishing touches on the museum’s new space inside the renovated Collins Center for the Arts at the University of Maine in Orono.
“I love this building, and it’s been transformed,” Faulkner said recently as she stood in the museum’s home inside the renovated Collins Center. “Talk about transformation. We’ve opened this up and it’s become something else.”
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On Saturday night, as the Collins Center begins its first full season since its evolution from the Maine Center for the Arts, Faulkner will be able to show off the changes to the museum, which was still under construction when the Collins Center opened in January.
Some areas of the Hudson Museum have been open since the spring, but for many visitors Saturday’s season-opening gala and performance by singer Neil Sedaka will be the first time they see the museum’s complete transformation.
The Hudson Museum, which has a collection of more than 8,000 objects from all over the world with a focus on American Indian and native cultures, is one of the few museums of its kind in northern New England considering the scope of its collection.
In its transition, the museum lost a little bit of space — the old museum was about 10,000 square feet spread out on three floors, while the new space is 9,300 square feet, all on the second floor of the Collins Center — but Faulkner believes the layout of the museum is much improved.
“Before, it was difficult to figure out how to navigate the museum,” Faulkner said. “It was on three levels and you didn’t know where to begin, which way to go. … Things are really visually accessible now. It has a flow, a human scale to it. Your relationship with the objects is much more on a personal level than you had before.”
There have been a number of improvements, including climate-controlled display cases that are lower to the ground, which improves the view for children and the disabled. There are also much larger glass cases so that items such as canoes and kayaks can be displayed easily, and large groups of baskets and sculptures can be exhibited at the same time.
The museum’s concept and themes have changed, said Dan Sandweiss, a UMaine anthropology professor and graduate dean who also heads up the museum’s board of cooperating curators.
The old setup focused on certain cultural areas of the world, such as the Northwest Coast from Alaska to Northern California and Mesoamerican civilizations of early Mexico and Central America, which Sandweiss said are strengths of the Hudson’s collection.
“It made a certain amount of sense,” he said. “But they were about parts of the world not in Maine, and there was no Maine gallery. The way the museum is organized now, there is a Maine gallery and a very nice one, and we felt that was really important to help teach about the native peoples of Maine. It’s a mandate for the university as a public institution to do that, and we have collections that are appropriate.”
The new Maine Indian Gallery, made up of three large display cases, highlights traditions of basket-making, works in birch bark, wood creations and the decorative traditions of Indians in what we consider Maine, northern New England and parts of Canada. Each display case shows examples of both early and contemporary work, to show that the traditions are continuing.
Faulkner said the Maine Indian Gallery was designed with help from local Indians, some of whom have the work of their relatives in the cases, and was completed in the spring. It was opened with an Indian smudging ceremony.
A fourth, smaller, display case near the Maine Indian Gallery shows, for the first time in the Hudson Museum, some archaeological implements on loan from UMaine’s anthropology department, and also highlights some climate research by UMaine faculty members.
The museum opens with the Merritt Gallery, four cases which hold a temporary or special exhibition, which Faulkner hopes to change every six months to possibly go along with a presentation or show at the Collins Center. Last year, the museum displayed some of its weaponry collection in a show called “Armed to the Teeth” at the same time the Collins Center presented the gory Broadway musical “Sweeney Todd.”
Last month Faulkner and her staff put the finishing touches on “Dressed for the Gods,” a special exhibit of the museum’s jewelry collection meant to coincide with the Collins Center gala. The exhibition includes stunning pieces in gold, jade, stone, crystal and bone.
From there, visitors can move to the new World Cultures Gallery which is a huge change from the formerly geographically centered displays.
There are now seven large cases with titles such as “Status and Power,” “Ritual and Belief,” “Transportation,” “Foodways,” “Home and Family,” “Adornment and Clothing,” and “Objects Made for Others.” Each case contains examples of items used by a culture, from Africa to the Pacific Northwest to South America.
The point of the change, Sandweiss said, is to make the museum more relatable, especially for the schoolchildren who make up the bulk of the museum’s visitors.
“We can take the commonalities of human existence, how people made a living, what they did about religion, clothing and so on, and focus on those across different cultures,” Sandweiss said. “It’s much better, pedagogically speaking, to connect them and make them think about the diversity in the world and the similarities among the world’s peoples [in] this way rather than to show them, here’s a bunch of stuff from the Northwest Coast or from Mesoamerica, which didn’t speak to them as well.”
The final piece of the museum is a large display case containing items from the William P. Palmer III Collection, donated to the Hudson Museum in 1982. Palmer was a 1958 UMaine graduate who collected pieces from the Mesoamerican cultural areas.
The collection, made up of 3,000 objects, was formerly shown in small groupings that weren’t refreshed that often. In the new museum, Faulkner can bring out bigger groups of objects that will stay on display for shorter periods of time, with the goal of eventually displaying the entire collection over the course of a few years.
The current exhibit in the Palmer case is made up of more than 50 West Mexican tomb figures.
“This allows us to get larger assemblages out so you can really see the range of a particular area,” Faulkner said. “I think people have enjoyed seeing the variety of images represented here, the ballplayers, warriors, domestic scenes, a set of Siamese twins, examples of birds and animals.”
There are also other Palmer pieces scattered throughout the display cases.
The Hudson’s space has undergone a lot of changes, too. Anyone who has visited the Collins Center since its reopening knows the red interior and the poplar panels are gone, replaced by whites and a subdued blue. The colors allow the Hudson’s pieces to stand out, particularly some of the colorful clothing and jewelry pieces.
It’s also an easier space for children and those in wheelchairs. The old display cases were higher, making it hard to see into. The new cases are closer to the ground, and the larger cases are floor-to-ceiling glass.
Faulkner said Main Street Design, a consulting firm based in Cambridge, Mass., made recommendations on the color palette and layout of the museum, and some UMaine art and new media students helped to carry out the new design.
Hundreds of visitors will see the changes for the first time this weekend during the Collins Center’s season-opening performance, and more will visit over the coming year as schools from all over the area begin to arrange tours and UMaine students on assignment explore the museum.
“We used to call it a patchwork quilt of exhibits, and now it’s a state-of-the-art museum,” Faulkner said. “I’m really looking forward to what we can now do for programming with the Collins Center, other groups that use the facility, and the community.”
The Hudson Museum will be open Saturday, Oct. 3, until about 8 p.m., when the performance by Neil Sedaka begins. Regular hours are 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday and 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday. For more information call 581-1901 or go to www.umaine.edu/hudsonmuseum.