March 26, 2019
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Tribal members live on through refurbished museum mannequins

PLEASANT POINT, Maine — A female figure kneels over baskets, long straw in her hands. Her blue striped dress and straw hat are representative of what and when she depicts: Passamaquoddy life in the 1800s.

The mannequin, recently refurbished, is one of 12 created in the 1960s and modeled after real people. They depict different aspects of life for the Passamaquoddy tribe, including basket-weaving, hunting and selling their wares. They span centuries, from the 1400s to the 1900s, and have intricate detailing.

Now on display at the tribal museum’s new location at 59 Passamaquoddy Road, upstairs from the Sipayik Youth Center, the mannequins took a while to repair. Previously housed in the museum’s former location on Route 190, Brenda Moore-Mitchell, a volunteer who served as the mannequin project director, said refurbishing began very slowly in 2005 or 2006.

“They came from the old museum, which was literally falling down around them,” Moore-Mitchell said. “I knew that they would need some work … but I didn’t know to what extent.”

Moore-Mitchell remembers the state of decay into which they had fallen. Many were missing hands or even whole limbs.

“They would crack just by moving them,” she said. “Some of them couldn’t even stand up.”

However, with a lack of funding, it was several years before the repairs could begin in earnest. In 2011, Moore-Mitchell and other volunteers began fundraising, earning about $1,500 toward the cost of refurbishing the mannequins. In 2012, they also received a $3,000 grant from the New England Foundation for the Arts. The Passamaquoddy made an in-kind match through artist volunteer work. About a year later, the volunteers received a $15,000 grant from the Maine Community Foundation. Volunteers continued to provide a match through their work.

“We didn’t know how to fix a mannequin in the first place,” Moore-Mitchell said.

Fortunately, William Schaefer, an artist specializing in sculpture and restoration, knew how to work with the plaster bodies to make them whole again. The East Machias resident volunteered his time to work on the mannequins and, in the process, trained Passamaquoddy students Randi Smith and Terran Moore, Moore-Mitchell’s son.

“My son redid a lot of the work on the arms and hands,” Moore-Mitchell said.

Repairing the plaster involved “hours and hours of work” over several months, Schaefer and Moore-Mitchell said.

After the plaster work was done, the tribe hired artists to design period clothing to depict life from around 1400 through modern times.

Moore-Mitchell said she had been concerned about the painting process.

“I didn’t want them to all look alike,” she said, adding some of the models had darker skin than others.

“[Smith] did an awesome job. I can’t believe how well they turned out,” she said.

The mannequins were modeled after actual tribe members, including Roberta Richter, who said she’s happy the tribe was able to restore them and make them look so good in the process.

“I think they look original and very close to the way all the people looked,” Richter said.

Now on display, the mannequins have been placed in settings that depict the lifestyles in Passamaquoddy history. The Waponahki Museum, open April to October, also has on display Maine Native tools, baskets, beaded artifacts, historic photos, and arts and crafts.

For more information on the tribal museum, call 853-2600 ext. 227.

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