‘Art, Oddities & Artifacts,’ Kittery journalist compiles Maine’s first museum book

Posted July 24, 2011, at 4:03 p.m.
Last modified July 24, 2011, at 4:19 p.m.

MAINE’S MUSEUMS: ART, ODDITIES & ARTIFACTS by Janet Mendelsohn, June 2011, The Countryman Press, $18.95, 236 pages.

Janet Mendelsohn arrived at the Maine Coast Sardine History Museum in Jonesport a few hours early. The owners, who lived in a house next door, weren’t pleased. In fact, they seemed outright skeptical.

It was a Sunday, and Mendelsohn had called ahead to get a tour of the collection that husband and wife Ronnie and Mary Peabody had transformed into a museum of community history in 2008.

“My husband described [Ronnie] as being like a character in one those old movies — a growling sea captain,” said Mendelsohn in a recent phone interview.

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But as the tour progressed through the building of canning equipment, factory gauges and Passamaquoddy-made baskets used for transporting fish scales, Ronnie warmed up to the couple as he realized how interested they were in the sardine industry. By the end, they were friends, emailing back and forth and talking on the phone, for the most part to help Mendelsohn with her book “Maine’s Museums: Art, Oddities & Artifacts,” the first book devoted solely to the museums of Maine.

“You might think you know an area, the coast or Bangor, but you don’t know everything about it,” Mendelsohn said. “When you go to a museum, you always learn something you didn’t know that is eye-opening … One of the best pieces about doing this book is it took me to places I haven’t been before.”

The research was a two-year process highlighted by road trips, and the finished product hit bookstores in June.

Mendelsohn is a writer and photographer for The Boston Globe travel section and other publications. For her first book, she wanted to add more than just the basic information people need for planning museum visits. She includes anecdotes of her travels and interviews prominent figures such as the Maine state historian and artist Barbara Ernst Prey.

With a home in Kittery Point, Mendelsohn is no stranger to Maine, but she never had a reason to visit Aroostook County until the Acadian Village popped up on her list for the book. The little she knew about Acadian history was dwarfed by the knowledge she gained from a descendant of the people who settled in that area.

“The true story I learned there about their past related to me and my own cultural background in ways I’d never expected,” said Mendelsohn. “I can appreciate their difficulties in being pushed out of their country and homeland in a way I didn’t know I’d feel until I went there.”

While some museums surprise when they teach you something about yourself, others fascinate with the oddity of their collection.

Tall wooden and glass cases filled with minerals and creatures from all over the world greeted Mendelsohn at the L.C. Bates Museum in Hinckley.

“It really is like stepping into a Harry Potter set … It’s the most odd experience,” she said, pausing for a few seconds. “You just have to see it to believe it, actually.”

Some museums weren’t so far from Mendelsohn’s usual terrain. Many times she had passed the Museum of African Culture, a small establishment on a side street in Portland. When she finally walked through the door, she was greeted by one of the most memorable people she has interviewed: museum director Oscar Mokeme, who came to Maine from Nigeria 20 years ago.

“When he came to Maine, he loved Portland because it had a lot of art. But he realized people around here don’t understand a lot of the roles that a lot of the masks and paintings and jewelry has in African culture. It’s not the same as here,” said Mendelsohn. “It’s a part of their life cycle. It’s a way of expressing their feelings and hopes for the future.”

Seven collaborating fine art museums in Maine make up the Maine Art Museum Trail. This trail, and groups of museums based upon theme, is listed at the back of the book in the index, “Pursuing Your Special Interests.”

“What are your interests? You can design a day trip or vacation that pursues some of these interests. There are five Native American museums in Maine, and they’re all very different from each other,” she said.

Cross the bridge to Indian Island and find the Penobscot Nation Museum in a small building, run by Penobscot elder and artist James Neptune, a man with a passion for the history of his people. His artwork and family photos are interspersed with a 100-year-old canoe and war clubs his ancestors made for tourists. He’ll explain it all, if you ask.

Talking to museum workers — owners, directors, secretaries, volunteers, guards — is the way to delve deeper into the artifacts and photographed faces on display.

Nearly all of the volunteers at the Telephone Museum in Ellsworth used to work for a telephone company. The Maine Maritime Museum organizes former shipyard workers to lead visitors through Bath Iron Works. And Mendelsohn’s guide at the Patten Lumberman’s Museum was a former manager in the lumber industry.

Mendelsohn found that the poor economy has been tough on smaller museums. The Portland Harbor Museum had low visitation numbers when Mendelsohn paid them a visit in summer 2010. Since then, it merged with Maine Maritime Museum, and she had to modify the information in the book before publication.

On the other hand, the new Outdoor Sporting Heritage Museum in Rangeley opened for its first full season in the spring and therefore didn’t make it into the book. Also, a few museums that she wanted to visit weren’t open when she was traveling in their region. She hopes to include more detailed descriptions of these places if she writes a second edition of the book.

“One of the things I have a greater appreciation of now is how they are adapting, because they need to adapt in order to survive,” said Mendelsohn. “Anyone who thinks museums are old-fashioned or stuffy needs to take a look, especially at the museums in Maine.”

High-tech kiosks and computer pads guide visitors through exhibits, and many museums offer short videos and plan events for children and adults that take into account the generally shorter attention span people have today.

In a conversation Mendelsohn had with Donna McNeil, director of the Maine Arts Commission, she asked her one thing the public could do for for museums. Without hesitation, McNeil answered, “Go. Numbers count.”

Mendelsohn passes on that message. Take woodcarving classes at the Wendell Gilley Museum in Southwest Harbor or ride a trolley around the 350-acre Seashore Trolley Museum in Kennebunkport.

“On a day when the weather’s not so great or you’re not sure what you want to do, go to a museum and discover a whole different world.”

Find “Maine Museums: Art, Oddities & Artifacts” at local bookstores or visit countrymanpress.com/titles/MaineMuseums.html.

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