Robert Abbe must be smiling. His little trailside museum of Stone Age Antiquities in Acadia National Park, still welcoming visitors from near and far after seventy-seven years, has been born anew in a modern, spacious facility in bustling downtown Bar Harbor. And Dr. Abbe's simple dream to foster appreciation for Maine's Native American cultures by displaying their prehistoric tools has blossomed into something far more ambitious - a museum that both honors the past and showcases the vibrant present of the state's contemporary tribes, with gentle lessons about diversity, tolerance, and reverence for the environment included in the price of admission.It's a winning formula for the elegant new Abbe, the only museum in the world dedicated to telling the story of the Wabanaki, "The People of the Dawn," as Maine's four tribes -the Passamaquoddy, Penobscot, Micmac, and Maliseet - are collectively known. The 2000 U.S. Census counted 7,098 people in Maine who identified themselves as American Indian, representing 0.6 percent of the state's population, with the majority living in Aroostook and Washington counties.
"History is critical to understanding who we are, but it's also important that we're not just portrayed as something from the past," says Bonnie Newsom, director of Cultural and Historic Preservation for the Penobscot Nation, who also serves as an Abbe Museum trustee. "We've been here for thousands of years, and we're here now."
Expanding the Abbe's mission to embrace this dual theme - conveyed in archeological and contemporary exhibits, history lessons, modern civics education, and traditional arts and crafts workshops taught by practicing Native American artists - has helped double attendance since the new facility opened in 2001, to an estimated 33,000 visitors annually, according to director Diane Kopec. In 2004, the annual operating budget swelled to $900,000 from $318,000 four years earlier ($5,900 way back in 1961), and eleven full-time staff members are now required to operate the new museum nine months a year, as well as Abbe's original museum, still open seasonally in Acadia from late May to mid-October.
Such success may come as a surprise to those whose sole image of the Abbe Museum is that strangely Mediterranean little building in the park's Sieur de Monts Spring area, nearly hidden among the trees at the base of Dorr Mountain. For years it has been a charming side trip, but not a destination, for curious tourists on their way to the Park Loop Road.
The Sieur de Monts museum, dedicated in August 1928 when the park was still known as Lafayette National Park, was Robert Abbe's obsession. A long-time summer resident of Mount Desert Island, he was a pioneering plastic surgeon in New York who introduced radiation therapy to the United States through his acquaintance with Pierre and Marie Curie.
Abbe enlisted the help of his friend George Dorr, a founding father of the park, to build "a jewel in the woods" to display his collection of antiquities - Native American stone and bone tools excavated from ancient shell heaps, or middens, in the greater Frenchman's Bay area of Down East Maine. Sadly, he died five months before the dedication, suffering from aplastic anemia probably induced by radiation exposure.
Today, Abbe's artifacts are at the heart of a 50,000-object collection spanning ten millennia of Maine Native American history and ranging from those prehistoric tools and pottery to modern woven baskets, carved birch root clubs, and ornate-handled "crooked" knives used for traditional woodworking.
And their climate-controlled safe harbor is the state-of-the-art, 17,000-square-foot facility on a narrow, three-quarter-acre site at the corner of Mount Desert and School streets in Bar Harbor, across from the Congregational church and a stone's throw from the Village Green. The downtown Abbe Museum occupies the former YMCA building, built in 1893 as a real estate and law office and remembered by generations of island youngsters as the place they learned to swim.
The wood-shingled, New England cottage-style building was fully renovated according to National Historic Register guidelines and retains many of its original features, including a distinctive turret from a long-vanished Bar Harbor hotel. The overall museum design, which integrates the historic structure with modern additions, was by Schwartz/Silver Architects of Boston, the same firm that created the Wyeth Center at the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland.
Inside, the Wabanaki: People of the Dawn permanent exhibit welcomes guests with murals, artwork, and crafts, including an "Enduring Traditions" exhibit of contemporary baskets and quill boxes, a video featuring tribal voices and music, and a multimedia timeline, developed by curator Rebecca Cole-Will, that begins with the present and literally travels back, through the museum's hallways, to the time of the mastodons.
Following this timeline from the renovated entry area, visitors arrive from the north at the distinctive Circle of the Four Directions, a three-story, silo-shaped structure that celebrates the importance of the circle in Native American cultures. The striking exterior of the Circle mimics the porcupine quillwork on decorated bark baskets. This and other innovative design details won architect Jon Traficonte the Boston Society of Architectural Design Award.
It's a contemplative space, with Native American flute music playing softly and light filtering in through skylights in its conical top, and the Abbe encourages guests to linger. Many of the museum's performances by Native Americans - drumming, dancing, poetry readings - are held here.
Visitors can pick and chose their Wabanaki time period after leaving the circle. Contemporary displays document the continuing Native American craft tradition in Maine, including more than 1,000 Native American baskets, primarily from Maine and the Canadian Maritime provinces, dating from the early 1800s and representing the largest, best-documented collection in any museum.
The Wabanaki trail winds through temporary exhibitions and the nineteenth-century collection, which features objects that demonstrate the flowering of traditional Native American arts and crafts that Maine Indians used to bring to Bar Harbor for sale to rusticators. The eighteenth century is represented by jewelry, pipes, and an etched powder horn attributed to Chief Orono of the Penobscot Nation, and the seventeenth century by copper tools and glass beads.
Downstairs, visitors can observe research-laboratory conservation activities by collections manager Julia Clark through a large glass window, and the lower level of the Circle of the Four Directions houses a hands-on children's archeology area in the round. Such educational opportunities have led to a dramatic increase in school group visits, and the Abbe has become a major resource for schools since the passage in 2001 of a state law that requires teaching Maine Native American history and culture.
"Our culture is rich, but it's a fragile thing, and people need to know that," says Bonnie Newsom, of the Penobscot Nation. "The Abbe is helping to preserve our culture and keep it going."
Its founder would be pleased.