At either end of a line connecting greater Augusta with greater Waterville, Maine are two museums that perfectly book-ended my two weeks in the state. For both, I have Wayne Curtis’ Insider’s Guide to thank, and thus the East Kingston Public Library from whence I borrowed the book. In his section on the Maine State Museum, Curtis writes that it shouldn’tbe off the beaten path, since it’s right next to the statehouse in Augusta, but for some reason, few Mainers know about it, and basically no “from-away”ers. This makes for a very quiet and unhurried museum visit. Only a handful of other people were there the day we went. Perhaps it’s the forbidding, gray concrete exterior with “Library Archive Museum” in easily missed lettering. Perhaps it’s the simple fact that Augusta is no bustling metropolis, nor a major tourist destination. In any case, we had it basically to ourselves.
The museum covers all things Maine, from sardine canning, to archaeology, to lobstering and woolen mills. It’s four floors of beautifully curated exhibits, artifacts, and life-size dioramas with mannequins that look just on the verge of coming alive (this unnerved Malcolm deeply). The recreated carpenter’s shop looks like he only just stepped out, with flakes of wood strewn across the floor and tools lying on the workbench. A waterwheel in the basement churns away as the river flows past, and that wheel in turn spins gears all the way up through the four floors to replica work floors of a sawmill and the loom room of a cloth factory. The mechanism is visible on every floor through plexiglass. It’s all quite remarkable. The natural history galleries are marvelous, including the very popular and macabre taxidermic heads of two bull moose with antlers locked in their final, fatal combat (they were discovered that way, dead of dehydration and the brutal efficiencies of natural selection.)
For a museum of this caliber, it is scandalously inexpensive: $2.00 for adults, $1.00 for children over 6. So you’ve no excuse. Except perhaps that you never go to Augusta. But perhaps you should, if only for this museum.
At the other end of the Augusta-Waterville axis in Hinckley, Maine, is a strange and wondrous place called the LC Bates Museum. Dark, moody, and almost gothic in its atmosphere, it is a natural history collection of arsenic-dusted animals gunned down for science in the style of the Victorian and Edwardian eras. Housed in a 1903 building that retains all of its period feel, this collection has very nearly supplanted Harvard’s Museum in my grim, morbid heart. Another absolute steal, admission is a mere $3.00 per adult. Though, you should be forewarned, the building is unheated in winter, which I can only imagine adds to the general ambience of this fantastic place. After emerging from the museum into the dazzling light of day, my mother and I both felt we had somehow fallen through a rabbit hole into a parallel universe. This sensation was enhanced by our subsequent visit to an enormous antique barn in the middle of nowhere (at least by our Massachusetts born standards). But that is a story for another time.