BATH – The thought of condensing 50 years of collecting into an exhibition that fits neatly into a museum space felt daunting to Nathan Lipfert, senior curator at the Maine Maritime Museum.
So he chose not to think about it too much.
Instead, he and museum pioneer and trustee emeritus Charles Burden made complementary lists of their favorite objects, and began the framework for the exhibition on view through spring, “Ahead Full at Fifty: 50 Years of Collecting at Maine Maritime Museum.”
“We just sat down and starting making lists of things that we knew were of interest either from the point of view of the historical intrinsic value or the story of how it came to be in the museum’s collection,” Lipfert said.
“Charlie made a first list. I added some things a little bit later, and we both kept thinking of things. In fact, I am still thinking of things. I am still walking though storage rooms and saying, ‘Oh, we should have put that in the show.’ “
The museum was chartered in 1962 and opened in 1964. The 50-year anniversary coincides with the earliest seed of an idea that grew into the Maine Maritime Museum. In the half-century since, the museum has amassed a collection of some 22,000 objects and untold pages of documents that pertain to Maine maritime history.
Which is to say: That’s quite a lot.
Among the 22,000 objects are 500 paintings, 7,000 shipbuilding tools, 130 small boats, 500 ship models and nine buildings, seven of which are on the National Register of Historic Places. Not to mention all the ship parts, navigational instruments, furnishings, fishing gear, engines, dioramas, textiles and other items.
Lipfert and Burden boiled all that down to about 150 objects for this exhibition. They chose tools, journals, cooking utensils, scrimshaw, maps, models and paintings galore.
Of those 150, a few pop out.
One of Lipfert’s favorite pieces in the show is a punch used for metal sheathing. This is a shipbuilder’s tool, built around 1800.
It looks something like an upright piano, and proved a major benefit for makers of wooden boats. Boats that were intended for long passages in warmer climes were sheathed below the waterline in copper to discourage the buildup of barnacles and other marine growth.
The practice of the day required men to punch holes in the sheaths before attached them to the hull. This machine was capable of punching holes in 100 sheets in 11 minutes.
It sped their process and made uniform holes.
“It’s not particularly beautiful, but it’s big and it’s cool,” said Lipfert, who professes a love for objects of use more than objects of beauty.
“I am interested in history of shipbuilding, so I have been researching ship-building tools for a long time. This one is unique.”
Situated in the middle of the gallery is 14-foot, low-profile boat used for duck hunting in Merrymeeting Bay. Lipfert likes this object for many reasons, including because it illustrates how the museum often acquires objects.
The boat was built in Bath in 1879 by Albert Ward, who lived in the north end of town. Ward and his family used the boat for hunting and fishing on Merrymeeting Bay and later up on Rangeley and Moosehead lakes. The boat passed on to Albert’s son, Galen Ward, who was born in 1879 and died in 1977.
The following year, when the boat turned 100, it was donated to the museum.
If nothing else, Lipfert hopes people who view the exhibition walk away with a sense of how and why the museum acquires objects.
“We just don’t go out and buy everything. People are giving us things, and we’ve formed relationships with people who have large collections. We participate in maritime history with people and families,” he said. “I want people to hear or read the stories about how we acquire stuff. That is one the biggest questions we get from random visitors.”
Another personal favorite is the ship’s medicine chest, which came from the Loring apothecary in Portland. It consists of a solid wooden box divided into compartments, which house small glass bottles. It dates to the late 19th century.
Merchant ships were required to carry medicines to deal with common ailments. Pharmacies in shipbuilding towns sold medicine chests as a matter of routine.
Burden bought it from a nautical antiques dealer and donated it to the museum.
In the catalog, he writes, “Many of the medicines thought to be important enough to be included 150 years ago, such as tincture of rhubarb or mercury compounds would not be employed today. Others, such as opium pills and quinine had proven effectiveness, though have been improved upon. … Note the catheter used to relieve urine stoppage, a common malady resulting from seamen’s sexual indiscretions in port.”
The gallery is full of beautiful paintings and other art objects. Among the most intriguing is a three-dimensional realist painting of the Percy & Small Shipyard, which is now part of the Maine Maritime Museum complex. The Maine-based artist R. Valentine Gray made an oil-and-wood depiction of the shipyard using small pieces of wood and just a little paint to give a sense of the buildings at the time the museum acquired them.
Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or: