FAIRFIELD — After more than a hundred years of hosting an oddball collection of historical artifacts, the L.C. Bates Museum on the Good Will-Hinckley campus has itself become a historical curiosity.
Once visitors’ eyes adjust from the sunlight to the dimly lit display rooms of the museum’s three levels, they can see a collection that includes such diverse objects as a cider press, the egg cases of a snail, a model circus, alligator teeth, and an iron door from a cell in Norridgewock’s Somerset County Jail, which closed in 1924.
Places like the L.C. Bates Museum, known in industry circles as cabinet of curiosity institutions, are becoming more rare, said Jay Adams, president of the board of directors of Maine Archives and Museums, an organization dedicated to the state’s collecting institutions.
“In the early days, they tended to be like L.C. Bates,” Adams said. “There was some history, some natural history, some ethnographic pieces, a little bit of everything. If it was quaint, or old, or attached to something because it was an oddity or whatever it was, then it got collected.”
The differences between the Bates museum and other museums, so striking that curator Deborah Staber said it regularly draws field trips from curious museum classes, are largely because of an approach to science that has gone by the wayside.
“Newer museums will tend to choose a focus,” Staber said. “We’re from a time of object-based collections, from a time when people were looking at science objects and trying to sort them.”
Few items would look completely out of place among the museum’s exhibits, which include everything from impressionist paintings by American painter Charles Daniel Hubbard to a grouping of about 20 marine sponges that an accompanying card says was donated from “Cuba boys.”
Adams said that there is a value to the broad approach common to the early 20th century.
“I don’t think you can separate human history from natural history,” he said. “They go together so many ways. Other places that are purely natural history or purely history, they can’t do it in the same way.”
A curious collection
The museum has grown since the 1860s, when the school’s founder, then a boy, was given a chunk of stalactite, a small fossil and a bit of sulphur by a local grist mill owner.
From that modest beginning, the collection has grown to include 40,000 archaeology pieces alone, but not even the curator knows how many total pieces are in the collection, which fills every available inch within the framing of the building’s yellow pine beams and window arches.
The spirit of Hinckley himself looms large in the building, which has one room dedicated to the history of the Good Will-Hinckley campus. Many items around the museum house placards bearing relevant quotes from Hinckley; he has also left behind extensive personal letters and writings.
In its early days, the museum bought many of its exhibits; a handful of stuffed monkeys and other exotic animals in the taxidermy collection were purchased by Hinckley in the early 1900s from Wards Natural Science Establishment, a taxidermy warehouse in Rochester, N.Y., that helped to supply ravenous collectors with everything from anteaters to zebras. Most of the museum’s exhibits were in place by 1950, Staber said.
Today, the museum still does business with Wards, which has lived on as a supply store for science gear ranging from molecule models to rock hammers to seismographs, although in a much more limited fashion.
Staber said that the most recent acquisition was a deer tick.
Most of the exhibits are donated rather than purchased, which adds a certain element of randomness to the acquisition process.
Occasionally, Staber said, the museum will put out the call for a particular object.
“For example, the phoebe,” Staber said, pointing to a small stuffed bird. She wanted to acquire it, she said, because “every little girl named Phoebe came in asking to see one.”
More often, individual donations that come before the five-member collections committee are unsolicited.
“Someone just sent us information that they would like to send us a dozen birds and a bear,” Staber said. “Most of them were not in great condition, but one bird fit in with an ongoing education collection that we have.”
Once in a while, the museum benefits when a resident discovers that it’s illegal to own certain birds of prey, said Staber. In her 20 years as curator, she’s come to learn that the occasional stuffed owl will turn up on the doorstep overnight.
It’s just that kind of a place.
A different kind of access
Larger, more modern museums tend to have a different philosophy.
In an effort to attract more visitors, institutions across the country are increasingly driven by buzz phrases like “deaccessioning” and “the experience economy” to help guide them through the modern digital age.
Deaccessioning is the process of identifying portions of a museum’s collection that can disposed of. It’s just the sort of efficiency gain that can simultaneously make perfect sense while giving panic attacks to the hoarder hidden inside every museum purist.
The experience economy refers to consumers who want more than an education when they visit a museum.
“The number one reason people come to museums is not education,” according to Erin Bishop, director of a network of collecting institutions and individuals known as Maine Archives & Museums.
“You can’t just go into a restaurant to have a meal. Someone has to throw peanuts at you or everyone talks in an Australian accent or the waitstaff insults you. It’s all about the experience you have,” she said.
Sometimes, the trend toward glitz can rob the experience of all meaning, Bishop said.
“I’ve been to collections that have so much flash that you don’t know what you just experienced, except you know you interacted with technology,” Bishop said. “You need a balance.”
Bishop said that experiences in throwback institutions like the Bates museum can be powerful.
“You get a much more personalized experience,” Bishop said. “That’s unique. It’s a very specific story to a very specific place, in a way that some of your larger institutions can’t do.”
Adams said that in larger, less intimate, institutions a visitor can be “lost in the shuffle.”
“At a large institution, unless you have research credentials, it may be difficult to get back in the stacks, as it were, to see the drawers and drawers of butterflies,” Adams said. “At a place like L.C. Bates, you’re probably going to get it all at once and you’re going to meet somebody who’s probably more familiar with everything in the collection. It’s not better or worse, but it’s a different kind of access.”
The museum has to hustle to stay open, because its finances are dependent on grants, donations, and gift shop purchases from thousands of annual visitors.
“It certainly is a concern every day,” Staber said.
The lack of funding is apparent in the varied levels of care and presentation. In the basement, the lowest of the museum’s three levels, the concrete floor is rough and pitted and sometimes floods in areas, according to a member of the staff. One room here is filled with aging homesteading tools including a cider press, a letter press, a horse-drawn carriage. They sit on the ground behind a wooden fence, with no identifying placards.
By contrast, on the same level a seemingly endless rock collection including everything from tourmaline to asbestos is meticulously labeled and secure in some of the most modern-looking display cases. They contain magnetite from Maine, sulphur from Sicily, calcite from China and fluorite from England.
Bishop said that small, underfunded groups shouldn’t be faulted for imperfect storage facilities. From the perspective of the collecting world, always faced with too many historical objects and not enough resources, some help is better than no help at all.
“They’re doing the best they can,” Bishop said, “and they’re taking things that may have been otherwise thrown out.”
Providing the best care for a collection is a constantly moving target, Bishop said.
“You’re always chasing best practices,” she said. “The collections can be very difficult to maintain.”
For Staber, her two part-time employees and a network of volunteers, there are more jobs than hands to do them. One volunteer is reacting to a bombshell dropped on the world of ornithology recently. DNA testing demonstrated that the Pine Warbler, also known as steophaga pinus, actually belongs to a different genus and has therefore been reclassified as dendroica pinus. Anywhere from a third to a half of the birds in a collection donated in the 1920s by a Mr. Yeton need to have their placards redone because of this and a slew of other reclassifications. The same needs to be done for various other exhibits around the museum.
Other projects include entering 40,000 archeology items into a searchable computer database, which has been completed, and cataloguing tens of thousands of documents, which has not.
Adams said that the museum industry as a whole is struggling to cope with a changing demographic, as many enthusiasts actively involved in collections are aging themselves.
“That demographic doesn’t seem to be replacing itself,” Adams said. “If you don’t have the replacement staff to carry on, and then the number of visitors is dwindling, and then school trips are down because there isn’t the emphasis on social science that there used to be — that’s not a good combination.”
It can’t be said that museums like L.C. Bates are dying out, though, because no one knows how many collecting institutions exist in Maine.
Ironically, when it comes to the institutions that were founded to keep track of objects, no one has been keeping track of the institutions themselves.
Maine Archives & Museums has about 330 member institutions, but Bishop believes that the total number could be three times that. Or maybe five times that. There’s no way to be sure.
It’s a problem that the group’s members are hoping to address this year, with a grant that will allow them to perform a census of collecting institutions in the state.
In spring of 2013, Bishop hopes the work of the census will be complete, after which they will begin identifying challenges and solutions for the institutions in the region. Bishop said the effort could help the L.C. Bates museum to stay viable while maintaining its unique appeal.
Nods to modernity
The days when Hinckley personally showed visitors around the museum, using the exhibits as springboards for tales of morality and inspiration, are gone, leaving the museum to offer more and different types of programs to ensure its place in the modern world.
The primary functions of the museum remain. For decades, it has been a resource for locals researching family tree projects, a destination for school field trips and a place for specialists to see small rotating exhibits, such as “Sponges of the Pacific Ocean,” and “Ferns of the Herbarium.”
It has also become more aggressive in its efforts to meet the future.
For the last few years, the museum’s staff has been traveling to classrooms to bring educational presentations to students; it also makes full use of a network of nature trails in planning walks that focus on seasonal topics such as mushrooms, animal tracks, and frogs.
A current summer art display, featuring exhibits from 23 Maine artists, includes many works that were created just this year.
There has even been an effort to digitize some of the offerings; currently, about 400 of the museum’s documents appear on the Maine Memory Network, a website that immortalizes images of objects that might otherwise fall victim to deterioration or disaster.
But even when literally reaching for the stars, as is the case with a recently launched moon program, the museum is dominated by its unique historical character. Last week, Staber announced the program would use a NASA grant to send a trilobyte fossil, 300 million years old, into the upper levels of the stratosphere known as “near space.” On Nov. 3, a high-tech weather balloon equipped with a GPS tracking device will be launched from the campus, lifting the trilobyte, affectionately called “Earth’s oldest astronaut,” to a height of at least 100,000 feet.
It is unlikely that Hinckley could have ever dreamed that the ancient fossil would one day ride alongside cameras busily snapping pictures of the blue curve of the Earth’s horizon from space. Still, the delight that he took in the exotic, the esoteric, the odd and the wonderful, suggests that the project would have gained his enthusiastic approval.
Matt Hongoltz-Hetling — 861-9287