A Feast of Museums in Maine

Hi, Janet Mendelsohn, guest writer, here. I’m a fledgling on the crime front but I’ve been a freelance feature and travel writer. I’m also the author of Maine’s Museums: Art, Oddities & Artifacts (Countryman Press, 2011). Researching that work has led me to great source material for stories–characters, locations, objects and events.

Over two years, I drove thousands of miles in Maine from Kittery to the County, from Alfred to Rangeley, MDI, Bangor and between. My GPS failed me on a logging road in Baxter State Park. On Peaks Island, I met an accordion-playing collector of umbrella covers (just the sleeves, not umbrellas themselves) who insists on serenading visitors with her rendition of “Let a Smile Be Your Umbrella.”

In Portland, I interviewed a lovely man, Dr. Harold Osher, a retired cardiologist who donated his extensive collection of rare and antique maps to the University of Southern Maine. At the Osher Map Library, I couldn’t hold one of Dr. Harold Osher’s most prized possessions, a letter written in 1493 by Christopher Columbus giving his account to Queen Isabella of what he discovered in America. But I sensed the thrill of being close to an historical moment and began to appreciate the depth of a collector’s excitement when Dr. Osher told the story of that letter. Shortly after the letter was written by the explorer on his return journey, the account was printed in several versions, creating excitement throughout Europe. The edition Dr. Osher purchased was published in Basel in 1494. It has woodcut illustrations that were the first stylized pictorial maps showing Columbus’s ship in the West Indies, making it the first printed map of the New World. And I was sitting with a man who wanted to share it with us because he understood that, as he said, “Maps are not just geographic pictures. They’re original historical documents, primary sources, encompassing all areas of human knowledge, culture and civilization.”

Portland is a treasure chest of ingredients for stories like the aforementioned two. One morning, standing before Abraham Lincoln’s death mask at the Maine Historical Society museum, the 16th president became real for me, more human than any film or book had ever made him seem.

Later that day, in the Museum of African Culture, I met Oscar Mokeme, its curator and director. Initially he was suspicious of my motives when I asked to interview him for a book. Evidently he assumed I’d also ask him to buy an ad or otherwise contribute to the project. But my sincere interest in the collection gradually won him over. Mokeme descends from a long line of Igbo royal family practitioner healers in Nigeria. He’s a natural teacher with a passion for teaching others about his continent’s diverse cultures. I was the museum’s only visitor. He showed me the initiation mask that was given to him when he was 12 years old, explaining it was part of a rite of passage. The mask was made from a tree planted on top of his umbilical cord when he was born. When his body dies, it will be buried under this same “tree of life.”

At The Telephone Museum in Ellsworth, a slew of volunteers, all retirees, were eager to demonstrate more about telephone networking systems than my brain could absorb. One woman had been an operator when her small town still had a “party line” in the days before 9-1-1 systems, when the operator could listen to private conversations and knew everyone’s gossip. Several men explained in detail how switching stations previously served Belfast and Bradford. One independent company provided telephone service for all 20 homes in the island community of Frenchboro; its equipment is all there, in one outbuilding.

Janet Mendelsohn is a freelance writer whose articles and photographs have appeared in numerous New England publications including the Boston Globe and online and regional magazines. She is also a Contributing Editor at Maine Boats, Homes and Harbors magazine www.maineboats.com  and the author of Maine’s Museums: Art, Oddities & Artifacts (Countryman Press, 2011). Contact her through her website, www.janetmendelsohn.com

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4 Responses to A Feast of Museums in Maine

  1. MCWriTers says:

    Janet…I had no idea about that map museum or the others. How did you get started on this project?


    • I was writing a Boston Globe travel article on the Maine Folk Art Trail which involved concurrent exhibits at 11 museums, large and small. I visited several of them for the first time, museums with wonderful collections, some off the beaten track, and realized many are unknown gems. I wanted to help spread the word beyond a few newspaper stories. A book was born. It was a great project.

  2. Barb Ross says:

    Thanks for coming by, Janet. Even more interesting places to go in Maine.

    I’m weirdly fascinated by early telephone companies, so I’ll have to make that one a stop. For me, it’s not so much the technology as the diversity and the evolution of how this once exotic instrument became universal.

  3. MCWriTers says:

    I’m fascinated by telephone companies because we used to have a party line, and an operator who sat in a small office upstairs over the grocery store. And you could call her and ask where someone was.


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