The first illustration in “A Story of Maine in 112 Objects is a glass plate negative (not one of the eponymous artifacts) from the early 20th century. The subject is not a granite monument, a great person or a grand vista. Rather, a pair of boys pose with their pet fawn. The caption tells us they are, perhaps, the photographer’s sons; in which case they are probably in Amity, Maine, on the Canadian border, where 400 people lived at the time, twice the present population.

Cover courtesy of Amazon

Throughout 400 or so pages of pictures and text, this brew of scholarly caution, imaginative possibility and context makes every object come alive. There is nothing magic about the number, 112. Maine State Museum director Bernard P. Fishman and his staff carefully chose the objects they felt would tell Maine’s story most cogently. It turned out there were 112 of them.

The museum aims to illustrate “what Maine thinks of itself, regards most highly, and is drawn to most insistently,” Fishman writes in his introduction. With wry wit, he turns the history of its development into a reflection of Maine’s own cultural ups and downs.

In 1836, an enterprising New York artist tried to sell a copy of Gilbert Stuart’s famous portrait of General Washington to Maine’s elected officials for $1,000. Foolishly, he delivered his work to the new State House on spec where it surely inspired, in Fishman’s words, “any legislator who gazed upon it.” Ignoring requests for payment, the lawmakers were “presumably still being inspired by the borrowed-but-not-paid-for Washington portrait,” when in 1850 the artist’s widow requested $300 or the painting’s return. At such a cut rate, how could “Maine’s sharp traders and patient Yankees” say no? Thus began the State House Portrait Collection, which now includes 140 pictures.

Also in 1836, the Legislature authorized Maine’s first geological survey, the specimens from which were to become the General Collection. A circular appealing for contributions of mineral specimens envisioned “a State Museum or Cabinet of Natural History;” Fishman calls this circular the Maine State Museum’s “birth certificate.” The Civil War added a third element to the museum’s collection: the Flag Collection consisting of the parade and battle flags of the many regiments that Maine supplied in defense of the Union.

A hundred and eighty years later, the General Collection numbers 750,000 articles, but the road from 1836 was anything but smooth. Fishman chronicles six deaths and six rebirths. He imputes this Phoenix-like survival to the will and needs of Maine people. In the 1960s, with a postwar cultural explosion sweeping the nation, “Maine’s sense of state pride demanded that it not be left behind in this national gallop toward intellectual uplift.” In 1971, the present 50,000-square-foot building – the museum’s “seventh, and, we presume, final and permanent appearance” – opened in Augusta.

The book’s 112 objects are organized in a dozen sections, with between seven and 12 objects in each. Starting with a fossil and a tourmaline, the first four sections carry Maine chronologically into statehood. Thereafter strict chronology is tempered with broader, unifying issues: the run-up to and impacts of the Civil War, the natural resource economy, cottage industry and factory manufacture, Vacationland, etc.

Every object tells a story, and the text that illuminates it adds to the prism that makes Maine unique. The range is truly extraordinary, and one is hard-pressed to single out any one article. As former head of Maine Audubon, I note the painting of a passenger pigeon. The serendipities and ironies of its story are not untypical.

When the Portland Society of Natural History lost its collection in a fire, all that was left was a stuffed passenger pigeon that had been on loan to an artist for a painting class. At the time, 1854, the species was one of the commonest in America, and the Society’s president bemoaned that “so worthless a thing” should alone have been spared. It didn’t survive the Portland fire of 1866. Its portrait, however, by an anonymous student, did and now commemorates an extinction second only to the Dodo’s in notoriety.

The 112th object is especially touching: a Russian folk costume given to Samantha Smith when its leader, Yuri Andropov, invited her to visit the USSR in 1983. She had written asking him if he wanted to “conquer the world.” The picture of the 10-year-old Mainer, who died in a plane crash two years later, “will forever promote peace and the idea that hope can overcome fear.”

“A Story of Maine” ends with this emotional as well as intellectual “uplift.” It deserves to be on display in every house in Maine.

Thomas Urquhart is an author and conservationist; his history of Maine’s Public Lots will be published next year. [email protected]

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