No. 23: The Artifact Track: Ten Tracks To The "Tomb"
Collections are assumed to be the backbone of any museum, but there is nothing straightforward about their creation. Here are ten of the tangled ways that our collection objects actually got here, as they passed from the travails of history into our benevolent administration, or as some wags would say, "entombed in the museum."
1. The Orphan
Discovered as we unlocked the front door, this foundling outboard motor was literally abandoned on our doorstep on a cold winter night.
It turned out to be a 1925 Caille Motor Co. Lightweight Twin and a rather nice addition to our outboard collection, so we didn't ask too many questions.
Most donors to the Museum are very particular about having their names recognized and credited. Part of my job is the creation and maintenance of this sort of information, but whoever hurried off into the dark and stormy night preferred to remain anonymous.
2. The Lure
We have three or four other chairs used by captains aboard Maine vessels. The others are all fairly sober and utilitarian, so we were taken aback by this fine example of the brazen Victorian cowhorn genre, having been attracted by its otherwise outstanding maritime provenance.
The chair was allegedly made for a captain's wife by sailors of his schooner, out of Millbridge, Maine. He was her second captain, the first being his older brother. The first marriage was a typical blue-water family, with 3 children born at sea on voyages to the Pacific.
In 1883, the first captain and two kids died in California, probably of disease; she wrote home to Maine, pleading her case; the younger brother went West, married her and bought her back to Millbridge with the surviving son. She then joined him on his coasting schooners, living out her days as a green-water wife. She was "a very tall 4 ft. 9"; and the diminutive size of the chair reflects this.
A nice story, but please don't leave one of these on our doorstep and run away. One is all we need.
3. The Bequest
Artifacts willed to the Museum are always appreciated, particularly when they are big bold paintings like this, of the Morgan Line screw steamer Excelsior, by Antonio Jacobsen.
The law office handling the bequest informed us of our good fortune, and of an arrival date. Three months late, it finally showed up, in brilliant, flawless color, immaculate frame, with brand new museum quality hangers, wire, and backing; in fact, looking like a painting fresh from a fine arts conservation lab.
Our suspicions raised, we viewed the painting under ultra-violet light to see this evidence of recent touch-up work over a large tear in the canvas.
Naturally, we are interested to know what happened, but no one is talking. The repair was expertly and invisibly done; we really can't complain about receiving such a spectacular painting, but such damage and conservation work is an important part of this painting's provenance for which we are still unable to account for.
4. The Never-ending Loan
Sometimes artifacts come here as loans and never leave. Initially taken in for a specific exhibit, the guests sometimes linger on after the party is over, taking up residence in climate-controlled security for years afterward. With almost medieval formality, the Loaners assert their ownership annually on paper with a Loan Renewal, for the fragile, valuable things that they would really much prefer never leave here. The Loaners never ask about returns; nor do we, in the hopes that we will someday formally accession these wonderful, semi-abandoned items into the collection.
One of the largest such groups is a carved ivory and bone collection of 182 items, which ranges widely across cultures from traditional scrimshaw to Japanese netsuke.
Among the Inuit pieces is this little rifle, presented to Arctic explorer Admiral MacMillan to repay the loss of a Remington by a teen-age boy. The reason for the rifle's disappearance was suspicious until years later when, viewing his films, 'Mac' saw that the rifle had been honestly lost, slipping from a sledge while crossing a pressure ridge.
5. The Immaculate
Generally, history deposits artifacts with us that have had a full life, with its consequent wear and tear. Occasionally, rarely, they come to us untouched. Such is the case with this 20 ft. Old Town 'Guide' model canoe, sold in 1941 to Charlie Cahill, owner of a local tire and service station.
As the manufacturer's hull ticket shows, Charlie drove off with his new canoe in August of that year; it was then slid up into the rafters of the garage, and never touched again.
There it remained, untouched, hanging over the bustle of the garage until his children decided to donate it to us two years ago.
We are sorry Charlie didn't get out in the canoe more, but to receive a production model Old Town of this vintage in such immaculate condition is unheard-of good fortune.
According to the family, Old Town offered to build a car rack for Charlie if he took the bigger model, and supplied leather tie straps and a red flag for the journey home. The straps and the red flag are still tied to the gunwales to this day.
6. The Labyrinth
Becoming an artifact means in a way, dying as a real-life object and entering a strange eternal twilight. This 1917 launch-day portrait of the schooner Luther Little shows the beginning of the artifact track typical of many of our ship parts. She would never be so new or complete again.
The twilight of the twin hulks Hesper and Luther Little that became known as "The Wiscasset schooners" was particularly lengthy, their "real life" ending in 1932, auctioned off to a Wiscasset entrepreneur to wait while his plans came to nothing. By 1948, the abandoned schooners were well settled into the mud by the Rt. 1 bridge, to the delight of every passing tourist,
where they would become photo opps, menu icons, and postcard features for generations. After years of trading on the romance of the ruins, the town elders finally decided that asset had turned to eyesore after the hulls had collapsed into the mud beyond recognition. The Kodak moment was over and they were carted to the town dump.
Though the Museum was invited to select certain key parts of the dismantled schooners as desirable for the collection, such as the above section of the rigging, we could never quite get to the end of the track before a new election. To be at the mercy of a Town bureaucracy - ever changing, ever distracted, and understandably pre-occupied with more pressing issues than a moldering pile of maritime rubble - proved to be our most protracted and frustrating artifact negotiation.
In late fall of 2004, these portions (above) of one of the Luther Little's top-mast doublings finally arrived,
along with this mast butt and related mast step.
7. The Concealed
Camouflaged within this picture from one our shipyard buildings is an artifact-to-be, something that is still in its original location, undisturbed from the 1894-1920 era of Percy & Small.
This shot from different angle reveals a bit more of a thin wooden pattern, tacked to the beam over the sliding door. The defunct 1970's-era alarm wire stapled right over it is a perfect disguise. Some sort of joinerwork plan has been drawn out to scale on it, possibly ship joinerwork, but until it is removed and cleaned, we cannot be sure. Once removed from the fabric of the building, it will be accessioned and catalogued as an artifact in its own right, but, for now, we'll leave it alone, and let you try to spy it in the meantime.
8. The Survivor
Arguably one of the lengthiest artifact tracks would be that of the hull fragments of the Snow Squall that now reside here. Brought back to Maine from halfway around the world, these relics are the only remains the world can see of an American clipper ship, built at South Portland in 1851.
In 1864, bound from New York to San Francisco, she ran aground near Cape Horn; she was freed, and sailed to Port Stanley in the Falkland Islands, the nearest port of refuge. There, like hundreds of other distressed vessels, she was condemned, sold, and her cargo shipped on.
Snow Squall entered her twilight at a Port Stanley jetty, finally sinking there to become an object of lumber salvage, and eventually part of the jetty itself.
Between 1982 and 1986 she was measured by four expeditions from Harvard University's Peabody Museum of Archeology and Ethnology, with some recovery of structural members.
Spring Point Museum of Portland recovered a 36' bow section in 1987, shown here being maneuvered onto a container ship for the long journey back to her home port.
But there was no rest for the weary timbers. Financial demands of coping with storage and preservation, forced the Portland museum to disperse various portions of the clipper pieces to other museums.
In March of 1995, the largest section was conveyed to MMM and taken first to Old Town Lumber Co. kiln drying facility, where it was dried in a new approach to large timber preservation.
In Dec. of 1995 Snow Squall, or what is left of her, was at last placed onto a concrete pad in our south parking lot and a shed was built around it, and several other smaller chunks.
In addition to the hull remnants, we also house the extensive archeological findings of smaller artifacts - bottles, implements, etc. - found within the hull.
9. The Plan
Many artifacts arrive here randomly: someone calls or walks into the lobby, "Do you want this...?" Anything with a Maine maritime connection gets our attention. But the other approach to collecting artifacts is to have an idea of what you want first, and then go find it.
The largest distinct collection group of artifacts on our shelves, about 10% of about 20,000, is, strictly speaking, not maritime at all, but rather household items. With the Donnell shipyard owner's house on-site here (above), interest in opening it to the public, accurately re-furbished as it was in 1890, has been a theme underlying our collection activity since the beginning.
The idea of a second interpretive theme-house, that of a 1910 shipyard worker's home, has also emerged as an intriguing way of contrasting the differences in economic lifestyle and changes in eras.
The earliest version of this idea was inspired by the relatively intact contents of the Gerrish chandlery (above) in Kittery, much of which dated back to ca. 1850.
The possibility of barging the 18th century structure to Bath for restoration proved unfeasible, but the hundreds of items from within are very much with us.
10. The Sacrifice
This most famous of Kennebec River towboats arrived at MMM from Belfast in July, 1969, literally under her own steam with Coast Guard certificate and boiler pressure rating up-to-date.
The tug Seguin was the single-most historically important existing Maine vessel artifact, and it had been donated to us for restoration. If a museum had nothing else but Seguin, that museum would still be a landmark.
Launched in 1884, the Seguin had seen the full scope of history on the Kennebec, assisting at the launchings of hundreds of Kennebec-built vessels, among them the absolute crown jewels of our maritime heritage.
Henry B. Hyde, 1884
USS Georgia, 1904
And here she was in 1974, still with us, a floating witness to so much that we stood for. How could we not attempt this arduous task?
Hauled in 1977 at Percy & Small's north ways, a ship-house facility was built over it, and the search for sound wood begun.
None was to be found. Seguin was not to reach her 1984 centenary, as many had hoped. By 1988, defeated by the magnitude of the decay of the vessel, ironically and wrenchingly, the Museum had to dismantle its own ultimate artifact. The old tug was dissected into a sub-collection of over 350 separate items, ranging from coffee-cans of nuts up to the enormous compound engine.
A program of documentation, publication, and exhibition was undertaken that continues to this day.
Seguin's sternpost, rudder, and engine shaft as stored today.
11. The Irreplaceable
To close, I want you to consider the thought that this Museum itself could be viewed as an artifact, as a unique, somewhat fragile, survivor of a distinct, earlier era.
Before the 1960's, the appreciation of our maritime heritage hadn't matured. Bath lay on the banks of its river, an old dog mill town, bruised but not beaten down by nearly a hundred years of shipbuilding booms and then busts. This heritage was what Bath was trying to move beyond, but just couldn't learn any new tricks.
By 1964 certain sociological, historical, and economic factors had ripened. Local shipping and shipbuilding culture was transitioning from living memory to past history as the people who had lived it grew old and died. Still living were retired lobstermen, shipyard-workers, and sea-captains in their 80's who worked the end of the 19th century. The creation of an institution to catch and hold this history just as it was about to fade away, be forgotten, or be dispersed came as a providential idea at a unique moment in time, one that could not now be repeated.
The Percy & Small shipyard property, by then an ex-warehouse for Sears & Roebuck, could easily have been sold off, the Mill and Joiner Shop demolished. Instead, the fledgling Marine Research Society of Bath came into being at just the right time to ride a mounting wave of historic preservation that is only now losing its momentum as operating costs for non-profits seem only to escalate.
Certainly the Museum as we know it could not be newly created today. The raw materials that make up our collections - the intact attics, the undisturbed barns, the as-yet-undisposed-of machinery, the tucked-away tool chests of caulkers, wheelwrights, pattern-makers, tinsmiths, sign painters, foundry workers, and other once-local trades, - have long gone, sold as antiques, and are now far less in volume and depth, and exorbitantly more expensive to acquire.
Similarly, our main gallery building with its surrounding ship-yard and riverside real estate, would be an investment impossibly expensive for a non-profit to undertake today.
A more intangible paradox lies in the very nature of historical collections in a world dominated by computers. Paper record collections, such as the Sewall family shipping archives around which the Museum was founded, are doubly a thing of the past. It is difficult to conceive of a future research society formed to preserve and study the business archives of, say, Bath Iron Works a hundred years from today, as digital computer files have short storage lives, by accident or design.
To think of it another way, e-mail correspondence from Arthur Sewall to his agents in Jakarta or Honolulu or Queenstown would have been routinely deleted once its immediate commercial value ended, in say 3 to 5 years, rather than sitting forgotten, but preserved as paper in tin boxes for over a hundred years.
So let us all do what we can to preserve this irreplacable "artifact" on the banks of the Kennebec, and make sure it sails on into the future, intact and full of potential to tell its tale to those maritime enthusiasts to come who will only know us by what we can hand on to them.
I think the air is now completely gone from my sails.
Let me know if you stopped by down here!
Chris Hall, Registrar