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The Story of the Maine State Museum

120 Year Start-up

Maine was one of the first states to initiate the concept of a state museum, but it took over 120 years to demonstrate that consistent support and proper facilities are vital for success.

After the District of Maine separated from Massachusetts in 1820 and settled in the new capital of Augusta, the state's government began to explore its newly independent domain more aggressively. But finding things is much easier than preserving and interpreting what has been found.

In 1836 the Maine State Legislature voted funds for a "cabinet or museum of mineral specimens…at the State House in Augusta." Boston geologist Dr. Charles T. Jackson, who conducted the first Geological Survey of Maine, selected specimens of his discoveries for display in 1837. This first exhibit included 1,566 cataloged rocks and minerals in specially made cabinets. Unfortunately, as a legislative report lamented, "There was no one to see to their preservation and no one capable or interested enough to give them study. As a consequence they all went to ruin and disappeared."

A Second Geological Survey was conducted in 1861. A "typical set" of specimens was again displayed in the State House, and for the second time it was neglected and the catalogs lost. The disgusted State Legislature of 1888-89 ordered the transfer of the surviving specimens from the State House basement to Colby University (now Colby College) in Waterville as a long-term loan. The second attempt to form a state museum had failed.

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Fish, Game, and Education

A 1912 article in the Lewiston Journal begins: "How many of our readers realize that our state is fast accumulating one of the finest museums and natural history collections to be found in New England?" It goes on to tell how in 1898, an Inland Fisheries and Game employee conceived the idea of making a systematic collection of mounted animals representing the fauna of Maine. Basement level rooms in the State House were obtained when he expanded the collection. The annual bureau report for 1900 estimated that 10,000 visitors had come to see the nearly 200 identified fish, birds, and animals. Also listed was "1 chair made of deer horns," which is still in the museum's collection today.

The 1910-1911 expansion of the State House provided new space. The Inland Fisheries and Game Commission brought the mineral collection back to the State House from Colby University. A huge oak display case, which had previously housed the state's battle flags, was cut down and fitted with electric lights. Stretching across one whole side of the new museum room, this case displayed the reclaimed mineral collection. In addition to natural history specimens, the museum also exhibited a Revolutionary War fife, a South Sea island war club, a shoe worn aboard the MAYFLOWER, Eskimo clothing, and Japanese goods. The curator's report for 1916 states, "More attention is being given to the educational function of the museum than to making a display of miscellaneous curios." Eight tanks of live fresh water fish were introduced that year.

The museum was given to the new Department of Education when it was created in 1931. The live fish were still on display in 1937, along with "military relics and historic curios," when the Federal Writer's Project compiled a book describing the attractions of Maine. While the museum survived both world wars, records indicate that operations were suspended due to overcrowded State House conditions in 1945 and the state lost its museum for the third time.

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Klir Beck and Exhibit Technology

Due to "increased public interest", however, the Legislature revived the museum under the Department of Economic Development in 1957. Klir A. Beck, a multi-talented painter, sculptor, and taxidermist, was made curator. Beck was very well known for his many years promoting Maine's outdoor attractions at hunting and fishing shows in major East Coast cities. He won first prize at the 1939 Worlds Fair in New York for his "State of Maine" exhibit. He brought his skills and ingenuity, and a new level of entertainment to his museum work. Among his first major projects were four state-of-the-art wildlife habitat groups in lifelike dioramas.

The museum and its curator were transferred to the State Park and Recreation Commission in 1963. Klir Beck died three years later and the Legislature dedicated the wildlife dioramas as a permanent memorial to his artistry and success in promoting public interest in Maine's natural environment.

Professional Museum Established

Due largely to Beck's success, and a growing appreciation of American history in general, change was in the air. The modern museum began with a Legislative Museum Study Committee formed in 1965 which helped guide the passage of a referendum for construction of a new home for the Maine State Museum, the Maine State Library, and the Maine State Archives. The initial plan called for the museum to become an educational and research institution which would develop well documented artifact collections, and fill the building with exhibitions and programs over a twenty-year period.

Perhaps more important than the new building was the museum's new status as a semi-independent state agency. This was intended to end the damaging practice of passing the museum from one large state department to another. A fifteen member governing body, the Maine State Museum Commission, was established in 1966.

The Maine State Cultural Building opened beside the State House in 1971. The new museum had a busy staff with offices, workshops, an artifact conservation lab, and an archaeology research program. Temporary exhibits and a small gift shop were in place.

Education programs began with the new school year and work started on the first major exhibits.

One year after the building opened, the museum lost its new found independence when a major reorganization of state government took place. The Maine State Museum was returned to the renamed Department of Education and Cultural Services. This arrangement lasted 18 years before the Museum Commission regained its semi-independent status.

The museum secured full professional accreditation from the American Association of Museums in 1975, a remarkable honor after so few years in the new building.

Success in state government frequently brings added responsibility. The State House collections of political portraits, furnishings and memorial wall plaques were assigned to museum care in 1971. The Adjutant General's office transferred the state's military flag collection and Hall of Flags display cases to the museum. The scientific archaeology program led to legislation in the 1980s assigning the museum to hold title to artifacts and specimens found on, in or beneath state-controlled lands and waters for the benefit of the people of Maine. A governor also ordered the museum to take over curation of historic art, furnishings and Blaine family artifacts in the governor's residence, the Blaine House.

The current staff of fourteen full and eleven part-time people is assisted by a strong contingent of generous volunteers. Together the staff and volunteers have maintained professional accreditation and continue to upgrade all aspects of the museum. Four floors of exhibits, many educational programs, and thousands of collections items from Maine's history, pre-history, and environment make the museum a popular destination for visitors, as well as a place of pride for Maine people.