2016-06-16 / Editorial

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A look back at 150 years
By Leslie Rounds

This is the 150th anniversary of the founding of the Saco Museum (called York Institute for most of its long life.) It was founded by a group of men from widely different backgrounds who shared an interest in the pursuit of knowledge. They pledged that none of them should die in possession of an uncommunicated historical fact. The stated purpose of the organization was "to promote the study of natural history; encourage science and art; also to collect and preserve whatever relates to the natural and civic history of York County." In accordance with that pledge, the museum hosted numerous informative lectures and exhibited all manner of strange curiosities in its early days.

The very first artifact in the collection was a piece of magnesium that the founders all got together and burned; it was a modern marvel to watch a piece of rock go up in flames. Other oddments included a small (dead) alligator, a large (dead) bald eagle that was trapped in the Scarborough marsh, a whole lot of (dead) birds along with their unhatched (and presumably dead) eggs and Civil War weapons that could be used to make people … dead. Not that the founders were focused on death. It was just what people did in those days.

Of more interest today are the many artifacts that relate to life in Saco and surrounding towns. Among the great treasures of the Saco Museum is the largest known collection of portraits by deaf itinerant artist John Brewster Jr. These portraits are, so far as is known, all of people who lived here in town. Each one is a treasure all by itself; as a group, they are beyond amazing. One of the great frustrations of the collection, however, is that we aren’t sure of the identities of several of the people portrayed. You might think that a museum as large and old as the Saco Museum would have absolutely crackerjack records. Not so much as you might imagine, unfortunately. Many of these portraits came into the collection shortly after the museum was founded. They depict people who lived (approximately) between 1775 and the 1830s. Relatives of those people still lived in town and nearly everyone knew who the portraits were of when they were donated – so no need to label them, right? When, for instance, five were added to the collection all at once (or so the records say,) it was not (really?) necessary to say which portrait was of which person, and, in the case where there were three people whose names all were William Cutts, to say which William Cutts. This makes for a pretty good mystery, but one that we wish we didn’t have.

When you try to solve that mystery, it might matter if the girl in that portrait (“Girl in Striped Dress”) resembles the boy in the other one (“Boy with Green Apple”) and if she does, whether that might mean she is his aunt, or just a round-faced girl who resembles a round-faced boy. Clothing can provide hints since styles changed from year to year and especially decade to decade, at least eliminating certain people from being the subjects. Or so we hope.

This summer’s exhibition, Art, Artifacts and Anecdotes: 150 Years of Collecting at the Saco Museum, is all about those mysteries and the tales (some of them remarkably fanciful) that have evolved around some of the objects in our collection. It’s an exhibition about all of us here in southern Maine, what we’ve valued over the years, and why, and the stories we’ve created to explain those objects. Please come in and take a look.

Leslie Rounds is executive director of Dyer Library/Saco Museum.

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