October 9, 2012

The L.C. Bates Museum: Over a century’s worth of quaint, old and odd

FAIRFIELD — After more than a hundred years of hosting an oddball collection of historical artifacts, the L.C. Bates Museum on the Good Will-Hinckley campus has itself become a historical curiosity.

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Ancient characters are etched in the stone of a cuneiform tablet from Mesopotamia, dated at 1500 B.C. The tablet is one of several items donated by Edgar Banks, an archaeologist upon whom the movie character of Indiana Jones was based.

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A plaster cast from 1868 shows a detailed scene of an 18-inch-tall President Abraham Lincoln holds a war council with Gen. Ulysses Grant and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. It sold for $25 in 1868.

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Museum Timeline


In the 1860s, when George Walter Hinckley was still a boy, he was given three rock specimens by a local amateur geologist, grist mill owner S. W. Loper.  Hinckley carried them throughout his early life so that they would one day become a part of a larger collection. In the early 1890s he began the Good Will Museum and established a small display on the campus.

1895: The collection was moved to a large room in the Moody Building on campus, where it grew to more than 700 specimens, mostly minerals.

1904: The Moody Building burned to the ground, destroying the collections except for a bronze medal from the Chicago World’s Fair. The fire triggered a flood of exhibit donations that were housed in the campus’ new Quincy building.

1914: Hinckley decided that the museum should occupy the entire Quincy Building and the building was converted to that purpose thanks in large part to support from Lewis Carlton Bates, the president of the Paris (Maine) Manufacturing Company.

1918: Hinckley decided that the collection should include historical objects as well as natural history items. Artifacts from the wood and cloth-making industries were among the first additions. 

1919: Good Will School graduate Ray Tobey became the curator of the museum. In his first year, the number of specimens on display grew from 1,100 to 1,550.

1923: Impressionist painter Charles Hubbard created 18 paintings to serve as backings for various natural history exhibits, dioramas that are still displayed today. That same year, Hinckley gave an official opening address for the museum, newly named in honor of its major benefactor Lewis Bates.

1924: Hinckley officially opened the museum to the public. In 1918, there were just 23 visitors, but about 1,400 people visited during the ten days after the opening. 

1987: The building was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Today, the museum has grown to include 40,000 specimens in archaeology alone. Curator Deborah Staber said no one knows the total number of items in the museum, but “it’s  a huge number.” In 2011, the museum hosted an estimated 20,000 visitors and has significantly expanded its offerings and programming.

Once visitors’ eyes adjust from the sunlight to the dimly lit display rooms of the museum’s three levels, they can see a collection that includes such diverse objects as a cider press, the egg cases of a snail, a model circus, alligator teeth, and an iron door from a cell in Norridgewock’s Somerset County Jail, which closed in 1924.

Places like the L.C. Bates Museum, known in industry circles as cabinet of curiosity institutions, are becoming more rare, said Jay Adams, president of the board of directors of Maine Archives and Museums, an organization dedicated to the state’s collecting institutions.

“In the early days, they tended to be like L.C. Bates,” Adams said. “There was some history, some natural history, some ethnographic pieces, a little bit of everything. If it was quaint, or old, or attached to something because it was an oddity or whatever it was, then it got collected.”

The differences between the Bates museum and other museums, so striking that curator Deborah Staber said it regularly draws field trips from curious museum classes, are largely because of an approach to science that has gone by the wayside.

“Newer museums will tend to choose a focus,” Staber said. “We’re from a time of object-based collections, from a time when people were looking at science objects and trying to sort them.”

Few items would look completely out of place among the museum’s exhibits, which include everything from impressionist paintings by American painter Charles Daniel Hubbard to a grouping of about 20 marine sponges that an accompanying card says was donated from “Cuba boys.”

Adams said that there is a value to the broad approach common to the early 20th century.

“I don’t think you can separate human history from natural history,” he said. “They go together so many ways. Other places that are purely natural history or purely history, they can’t do it in the same way.”

A curious collection
The museum has grown since the 1860s, when the school’s founder, then a boy, was given a chunk of stalactite, a small fossil and a bit of sulphur by a local grist mill owner.

From that modest beginning, the collection has grown to include 40,000 archaeology pieces alone, but not even the curator knows how many total pieces are in the collection, which fills every available inch within the framing of the building’s yellow pine beams and window arches.

The spirit of Hinckley himself looms large in the building, which has one room dedicated to the history of the Good Will-Hinckley campus. Many items around the museum house placards bearing relevant quotes from Hinckley; he has also left behind extensive personal letters and writings.

In its early days, the museum bought many of its exhibits; a handful of stuffed monkeys and other exotic animals in the taxidermy collection were purchased by Hinckley in the early 1900s from Wards Natural Science Establishment, a taxidermy warehouse in Rochester, N.Y., that helped to supply ravenous collectors with everything from anteaters to zebras. Most of the museum’s exhibits were in place by 1950, Staber said.

Today, the museum still does business with Wards, which has lived on as a supply store for science gear ranging from molecule models to rock hammers to seismographs, although in a much more limited fashion.
Staber said that the most recent acquisition was a deer tick.

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Additional Photos

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The head of an American bison, Barney, is mounted on the wall. According to a sign, a man from South Dakota fell deathly ill and was nursed back to health by the manager of a lumber company in Solon. After returning home, he sent the live bison back via train as a thank you present.

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The head of a caribou, no longer native to Maine, is mounted on one wall. This specimen was chosen because it has an atypical antler growing from beneath its eye.

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Deborah Staber, L.C. Bates Museum curator.

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