Published: June 11, 2002
By Bob Jackman
BAR HARBOR, MAINE – The Abbe Museum has opened a new building whose architecture and exhibitions point to a different approach for museums exhibiting Native American culture. Visitors will find that the museum offers an exciting, enlightening experience. State of the art installations convey legends, and accounts spanning from Paleo-Indians through contemporary Native Americans.
Exhibitions in the new building demonstrate the culture and artifacts of the Wabanaki (translation: the People of the Dawn) who have lived in Maine for ten millennia. The Wabanaki nation includes the Penobscot, Passamaquoddy, Micmac and Maliseet Peoples. The Wabanaki should not be confused with the Abenaki, a people that live mostly in the area now called New Hampshire and Vermont.
Americans tend to underestimate the size of the Wabanaki nation since much of its range overlaps with Canada. The Micmac extend across the Canadian provinces of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island. The Passamaquoddy and Maliseet also live in New Brunswick and Quebec Provinces. The Penobscot occupy southern Quebec.
Since its founding in 1928 the Abbe (pronounced ab-bee) has followed a unique approach of cooperation with Native Americans that has produced a distinctive representation of Native culture in America. The new museum amplifies that representation with greatly expanded exhibition space, a full-year program and expanded research facilities.
At dedication ceremonies, Oscar Remick, president of the board of trustees, enthused, “This new building is itself a great demonstration of Native culture. A fascinating diversity of people contributed to this remarkable facility. The museum embraces all human kind with a special goodwill. Dr Abbe established a legacy of vision that continues to inspire all of us to meet the challenges of our time.”
The Abbe Museum’s distinctive message of goodwill has been produced by respectfully drawing upon archeological findings, Native American opinion and historical documentation. The message is both intellectually rigorous and compellingly human. It is hoped that other institutions will consider the Abbe Museum model of inclusion and cooperation.
Circle of the Four Directions
The Circle of the Four Directions is a unique wing that architecturally demonstrates the circle as the central concept of Native American culture. Visitors who recognize the circular building as a metaphor for the concept of circles in life will be at the door to understanding Native culture. The tower also symbolizes the inclusion of Native Peoples in planning, design and construction of the new building.
At opening ceremonies, Passamaquoddy educator Wayne Newell thanked museum leaders for forming focus groups and responding purposefully to feedback from Native American peoples and other sectors of the community. He was particularly thankful that museum leaders permitted Native Peoples to convince the board to erect the Circle of Four Directions.
Newell stated, “It is hard to emphasize the importance of the circle motif in our tradition. Many contemporary people focus on a time line that is linear. We understand that approach, but we think differently. We think of the circles or cycles in nature. Our concept of time follows those circles.”
Donald Socotomah, the Passamaquoddy representative to the Maine state legislature, stated, “The circle is the way that the Native People look at the whole universe. Everything occurs in circles. This carries over into our architecture where we have circular rooms such as a sweat lodge, teepees and such. In living lodges we have happy moments and sad moments, and there is a spiritual connection between the two. We also see the circle in the sky. The stars follow a circle through the year. We have many legends associated with the stars and natural life.”
Socotomah saw the wing as a metaphor that could enable visitors to understand Native culture. “The circle is the vision of Native People looking at the whole earth. This building can assist other people to relate to that vision, and then that would be a start in understanding Native culture. Then they will have an opportunity to understand other Native views. For example, we see all land owned in common by all people. For us, land is part of the circle. This is very different than the concept of the first settlers who saw land ownership as having boundaries as limits, not as part of the circle.”
Socotomah saw great potential in the Circle of Four Directions. He enthused, “Many people will see this structure, and some will learn the significance of the circle in Native traditions. That understanding can improve communications. Hopefully this will be the start of a new relationship between the Native Peoples and the rest of the world.”
A similar hope was expressed by Governor Richard Doyle of the Point Pleasant reservation of Passamaquoddy who dedicated the new building stating, “I ask the Great Father to bless this building. It holds our story, and lets us share it with other folks. The round room [Circle of the Four Directions] is a special place. It brings me peace, friendship and harmony.”
While museum leaders tightly focused the wing as the Circle of the Four Directions, Native Americans were less limiting. They recognized the link to the four directions and winds, but they perceived other connections as well. Every Native American interviewed on the structure commented on its relation to sweat lodges.
Socotomah commented, “The sweat lodge is very important to our culture. It is the location of certain types of ceremonies during the year, and also it is used for certain events. It is used for highly spiritual occasions. For example, provisions in federal law require museums to release human remains back to the tribes. When those remains arrive, the first place the remains are taken is the sweat lodge. After rituals at the sweat lodge are concluded, then the remains are returned to the earth.”
Standing in the Circle of the Four Directions Wayne Newell recalled, “The museum sincerely asked for our input, and we wanted this space the most. It reflects our traditional spaces. It is a space like a wigwam that can be conducive to a living quality. It emphasizes the notion of a circle with no beginning and no end, earth as a sphere.”
Newell continued, “This space can change. It can be used for exhibitions. However, Native People like to talk in a circle, and this space can be used for talking. You can also dance around in the space. Singing carries well in a round space. I think this can be a sacred place.”
Looking upward Newell noted, “The architects did a special job in treating light. They used fabric sails to diffuse the sunlight and make it soft. Yet at night you can look up and see the stars. During the day you can see clouds passing overhead. The building connects to nature. Wigwams are designed so there is a smoke hole in the center. This building is not an exact replica of a wigwam or a sweat house, but it incorporates many things from them.”
Newell expressed gratitude toward the museum. “The Abbe planned for a unique experience with this building. This is a prime example of Native architecture. In relating to young people, cycle is the keyword. There are rhythms found not only in Native Peoples, but all peoples. This building makes the circle visible, memorable.”
While the Circle of the Four Directions is only one wing in a much larger museum, it demonstrates the sincere approach of cooperation in the design and operation of the museum.
Robert C. Abbe, great-grandnephew of Dr Robert Abbe, commented upon the philosophy of sincere cooperation. He stated, “This museum is so different from other museums with Native American collections. Elsewhere there are passionate disagreements between the museum and Native Americans regarding issues of ownership and preservation. Here the atmosphere is one of harmony and cooperation. The Native Americans have been so much a part of this process that this is a museum that the Native People are part of and approve of. The Native Americans say ‘When I come here, I say I am coming to sacred ground. I am at peace here.'”
Dr Robert Abbe
Museum founder Dr Robert Abbe was a special man. Much of his medical career was based at St Luke’s Hospital in New York where he was a pioneer in plastic surgery. While this type of surgery sometimes is associated with the vain and pompous, plastic surgeons have preserved the appearance of millions of Americans following accidents or other surgery.
Late in the Nineteenth Century, Abbe traveled to France to study radiation therapy under Madame Curie. Upon his return to America, he introduced radiation therapy to treat cancer. Each year hundreds of thousands of Americans are rescued from cancer with this therapy. Sadly in the early years of this therapy there were no safeguards for the medical staff, and exposure to radiation probably contributed to Abbe’s fatal illness that claimed him in 1928.
Abbe experienced his adult years during the Arts and Crafts Movement, a movement that included a strong interest in Native American artifacts and culture. Therefore, it was not surprising that Abbe became fascinated with early Native American artifacts, particularly those in stone, while visiting Mount Desert Island. Subsequently, his interests expanded to the science of archeology with proper measurements and record keeping.
As Abbe approached the end of his life, he and friends began planning a trailside museum at Acadia National Park. The museum with Spanish Colonial architecture was dedicated in 1928. Unfortunately Abbe died a few months before the museum’s dedication. His collection of Native artifacts was left to the museum.
Original Abbe Museum
The original Abbe Museum retains the smoked oak display cabinets installed at its opening. It is a beautiful little building whose exhibitions are about equally divided between the archeological periods and the last 150 years.
Among the striking archeological exhibits are swordfish harpoon tips fashioned from bone. In modern times, waters in the Gulf of Maine are too cold for swordfish. During the Archaic Period (9,000 to 3,000 years ago), however, the waters were warmer and swordfish summered off Bar Harbor. Abbe Museum assisted archeological digs on islands, revealing that Natives established busy swordfishing bases on some islands. This discovery of Native American maritime fishermen demonstrated the diversity of the Wabanaki and challenged the notion that they were a woodland nation.
One of the most important distinctions of the Abbe Museum and its collection is its emphasis upon archeology. Most artifacts in its collection have a specific history of being found in a certain dig, at a certain level from a determined period. Such work is grueling and produces a collection with hundreds of beaver teeth dug at dozens of sites, but it also creates a scientific basis for discovering the story of earlier peoples and changes in nature. For example, the great auk population was constant until the bird disappeared during the Contact period, when Europeans arrived. Also, the average codfish was much larger before the Contact period.
For all its charm, the original Abbe Museum has a number of shortcomings. It does not have the climate control now deemed essential to the proper preservation of may artifacts, particularly fabrics and baskets. Even with an addition several decades ago, the space is only 2,000 square feet. Lighting is variable from location to location. While the building is well suited for a fascinating trailside museum, it does not have the staff space, exhibition space and storage space needed by a major museum.
Fundraising that Could
Everything was made possible by a remarkable fundraising effort, a bit reminiscent of the children’s story “The Little Engine that Could.” Museum supporters recognized a need for a much larger building located closer to the commercial area of town.
Seven years ago, the original YMCA building at the center of downtown came onto the market. Museum supporters recognized that the building had the potential to be renovated into a museum. Maine philanthropist Betty Noyce offered the museum a challenge grant of $500,000. Supporters were able to fund a study by museum specialists to evaluate the feasibility of the building and the community’s fundraising capabilities. Their study determined the building could be purchased and converted to a museum for $1.75 million, and that was a realistic fundraising goal for the museum.
The community contributed to planning and designing at every step, but that generated a more extensive list of “must have” components. Soon the new museum was being extended beyond the footprint of the original museum.
The burden for raising funds fell to Capital Campaign Chairman Elisabeth Heyward and Vice Chairman Alice Wellman. Heyward stated, “This is the first time I have ever worked on a fundraising committee. My father was an architect, so I was helpful explaining how the building would look when it was completed. Alice did a great job chasing every possible dollar. At the outset, raising $1.75 million seemed huge. Then as plans grew, the need for money grew. The campaign goal was revised to $2 million, then $3 million, then $4.5, then $5.7 million, and finally $6.1 million.” The museum raised more than three times as much money as experts thought possible.
Heyward recalled, “Each time the planners said they needed more money, we just went out and raised it. The whole thing was sort of unpredictable, but it worked very well. Some money came from people we identified early in the process. Some people who summer here or spend a week [each summer] came forward. Some people from other parts of the country heard about the campaign and contributed. The Kresge Challenge Fund and the National Endowment for the Humanities also helped.”
The New Abbe Museum
The new Abbe Museum building has 17,000 square feet of space, a moderate museum size appropriate for a museum with a specialized focus. The portion that was part of the old YMCA has been so extensively renovated that only the façade provides any hint of the building’s age. The museum has several exhibition spaces, an adult education area, a juvenile education center, gift shop, conservation laboratory, offices and storage. There are climate controls throughout the building.
Abbe museum director Diane Kopec commented on the front gallery exhibition “Wabanaki: People of the Dawn.” She stated, “We wanted to call visitor attention to the fact that there are still Native Americans living in Maine, and by extension across much of the continent. Some people are surprised to discover that Natives are not extinct. We think it is important to understand that there are four Native Peoples living the state. Some carry on some traditional crafts such as basketmaking while others are engineers on major construction projects. We wanted to present the contemporary people of Maine. The staff designed many exhibits, and Native advisors helped with some [projects] such as the timeline.”
The timeline in this exhibition includes the most important document relating to Maine Native Peoples during the Contact period, the 1794 treaty between the Wabanaki and Massachusetts. Maine split from Massachusetts around 1820, and the old treaty was binding on the new state. That treaty demonstrated that large tracts of Maine had been wrongly taken from the Passamaquoddy. New settlements were negotiated between Maine Native Americans and both the United States and the State of Maine. Those settlements in turn became the basis of many improvements in Native life over the past two decades.
The major exhibition that will be continuing until October 20 is “Four Mollies: Women of the Dawn.” The exhibition is based upon the book Women of the Dawn written by Bunny McBride, curator of the special exhibition. Built around the lives of four real women named Molly, the exhibition presents the personal histories that explore four centuries, reaching back to the Contact period.
McBride stated, “Each of the women is emblematic of her era and the resilience required to survive an invading culture. Yet each is also a distinct individual, considered remarkable even by the European-American society that typically has disregarded Native women.”
In an adjacent gallery Penobscot photographer Martin Neptune displays his works in a show entitled, “Images of Spirit.” Neptune commented, “I like to take pictures that are beautiful, but also symbolic. I like to photograph things that touch the spirit.”
Most museums with Native American exhibitions present Pan American exhibitions with highlights from each Native nation. The Abbe collection is geographically focused upon Maine Native Peoples rather than having a continental perspective. The collection is also far more archeologically weighted.
The museum does not intend to being visually dazzling, but intends rather to convey a how people lived in the area in the 12,000 years since glaciers retreated and exposed a fresh earth. Some of the most drearily colored objects become the most exciting with a little time and consideration.
At the opening two eight-year-old girls raised and lowered a huge greenish, ivory bone mounted on a rail. One noted, “These things look like giant teeth, but they are all stuck together so it’s just one thing.” The other read the label, “It’s a mass something tooth. Could that really be a tooth? It’s bigger than your whole head!” It was a woolly mastodon’s tooth, and graphically demonstrated the hazards that the Paleo-Indians confronted as the moved into Maine.
In addition to an exceptional archeological collection, the Abbe Museum also has probably the finest collection of Wabanaki craft rdf_Descriptions including baskets, moose hair rdf_Descriptions, beadwork and birchbark containers.
The recent opening celebrations began with the dedication on Friday night and continued throughout the weekend. One component of the celebrations was craft demonstrations.
Probably the most widely known crafter was basketmaker Mary Sanipass who has been featured in books and on videos. Sanipass demonstrated the weaving of traditional baskets from black ash splints, and spoke engagingly with visitors. Her favorite audience appeared to be young girls who watched in wide-eyed wonder. Some timidly asked if they could learn to “do that,” and Mary assured them they could learn very well.
Sanipass was accompanied by her daughter Donna, a basketmaker, and her husband, Donald Sanipass. Mr Sanipass carves basket handles and rims, and also obtains black ash. He explained that black ash is becoming scarce, and special conservation measures have been instituted. “We need to allow the black ash to thrive. We have adopted a rule that we can only harvest black ash that is at least 14 inches in diameter at chest height. Also, we have a planting program that adds to the ash that grow naturally.”
Some of the most dramatic carvings of the weekend were produced by Penobscot Joe Dana. Dana produces a number of wares, but his specialty is root head clubs on which he carves eagles, moose and many other creatures of nature. Dana finishes each club by painting it in bright colors.
During the opening celebrations, music filled the air both inside and out. An unanticipated sound was that of a Native flute played by Micmac David Sanipass, son of Mary and Donald Sanipass. He commented, “The flute is over 20,000 years old. There is a Native America flute at the Peabody Museum that is over 300 years old. I learned to play by listening.”
Eight flutes sat on a table. David Sanipass explained, “I made five of these, and got two of these from other flute makers. However, this dark flute is the most special. My grandfather gave it to me when I was 17 or 18 years old. He had received it in 1926. Sometime before that it had been through a fire, and that is why it is dark.” In addition to making flutes, Sanipass is a black smith, carver, basketmaker and storyteller.
Also inside the hall the Passamaquoddy duel of Blanche Sockabasin and Wayne Newell played hand drums, sang and told Native stories.
Reverberating through the nearby neighborhood was the rhythmic sound of a large floor drum and Penobscot chatting of the Burnurwurbskek Singers. Later in the weekend Sukulis, a band of Penobscot girls from the Indian Island School, also played a floor drum and chanted.
Location and Seasons
With a rich variety of galleries, restaurants and entertainment, downtown Bar Harbor is a mecca for strollers. Visitors will find the new building at 26 Mount Desert Street near the intersection with Main Street.
Drivers will find a small parking lot behind the museum. When that area is full, there are usually some public spaces available around the fields on Park Street, several blocks west down the side streets. Visitors arriving from off island can follow Route 3 from the bridge along the shore and into Bar Harbor. One section of Route 3 is Mount Desert Street, and the museum is located on the right a block before Main Street.
The original Abbe Museum is near the first parking lot inside Acadia National Park, off Route 3. The path to the museum begins behind the Natural History Museum, crosses a spring and ascends about 600 yards to the museum.
The new, downtown Abbe Museum is open year round although days and hours are reduced in the off-season. The original, trailside Abbe Museum is open from May through October. For information, 207-288-3519.
5 Church Hill Road / Newtown, CT 06470
Mon - Fri / 8:00 am - 5:01 pm