Maine Museums & Art Galleries

Winslow Homer - Artists Sketching in the White Mountains

The painting by Winslow Homer "Artists Sketching in the White Mountains" can be viewed at the Portland Museum of Art. Image courtesy of Rlbberlin. Creative Commons Attribution License.

Art | Maritime | History | Native American | Children | Transportation | Special Interest

“— I paid three, all told, for my passage from Boston to Bangor, 250 miles, — and be as rich as he pleases, where land virtually costs nothing, and houses only the labor of building, and he may begin life as Adam did.”

Henry David Thoreau, The Maine Woods, 1853

Museums, Gallery Hopping and Antiquing

In the 1840s Thomas Cole and Frederick Church, landscape painters and influential members of an art movement called the Hudson River School, sketched and painted scenes of Mount Desert Island. The Hudson River School celebrated the majestic power and serenity of America’s natural landscape, and their paintings were an idealized version of the wild and untamed beauty that stretched from the towering mountains to the rolling fields. Dense forests, rushing rivers and pastoral settings became a lush and vividly imagined paradise.

Thomas Cole and Frederic Church projected a vision of Maine as a romantic and remote destination. In a sense, these two landscape painters created the mid-century equivalent of an advertising campaign. After their work was displayed, America’s painters and writers flocked to Maine to study its craggy coastline, mountain peaks and shades of sunlight. Henry David Thoreau climbed Mount Katahdin in 1846, and he later wrote about his adventures in Maine in a collection of articles entitled The Maine Woods. Once the artists and writers’ popularized Maine’s vast and unspoiled beauty, the tourists were quick to descend on the state. Today, Maine has a variety of different museums you can visit. From art and maritime museums to collections specializing in history, transportation and Native American artifacts, Maine’s artistic legacy is well represented.

When you wind your way along coastal Route 1 from York to Bar Harbor, there is no shortage of art galleries and clapboard antique shops. They are as prevalent as the lobster traps stacked throughout Maine’s fishing villages. While the commercial galleries are clustered around Portland, Boothbay, Rockland, Blue Hill and Eastport, smaller, artist-owned galleries are found in Sullivan, Stonington and the islands of Monhegan and Little Cranberry. Maine is filled with artisans and craftsmen. From glass blowers and silversmiths to potters and water-colorists, every type of artistic medium is on display in the galleries and boutiques in Maine.

Antiquing is a favorite pastime in New England, and Maine is like a dream come true for antique lovers. There are over 2,500 registered antique dealers in the state. The number of antique shops highlights the Old Timey atmosphere that dominates many of these village green and white gazebo communities. Maine is also known for its sprawling, country farmhouse style flea markets, where each warped and rickety wooden floor is dedicated to different heirlooms and period antiques. Rain or shine, summer or winter, gallery hopping and antiquing are popular activities in Maine. If you are searching for a rare, 17th century piece of china and dedicated to scouring every one of these locations, there are specific Antique Trails that you can follow.

Art Museums

Maine has seven high profile art museums. Founded in 1882, The Portland Museum of Art is the oldest and largest art museum in Maine. There are over 17,000 objects in its collection, ranging from decorative and fine arts to its famous State of Maine galleries. The Portland Museum of Art has the largest selection of European art in Maine, with a strong emphasis on Impressionism and Surrealism. It has celebrated works by Monet, Degas, Picasso and Edvard Munch. The State of Maine Collection features those artists who were either born in Maine, or who had spent some point in their artistic career working in the state. Paintings by Winslow Homer, Marsden Hartley and Andrew Wyeth are just a few of the highlights of this collection. In addition to it extensive permanent collection, the Portland Museum of Art also features many exclusive shows throughout the year.

The Farnsworth Art Museum, in Rockland, has a stellar collection of American and regional Maine Art. More importantly, the Farnsworth is globally recognized amongst critics and scholars for its Center for the Wyeth Family. This Center celebrates three generations of Wyeth painters: N.C., Andrew and James Wyeth. The Farnsworth also has frequent special exhibits.

While the Portland Museum of Art and the Farnsworth are the largest and most popular art museums in Maine, here is a look at five others that are sure to impress.

  • Colby College Museum of Art
  • Bowdoin College Museum of Art
  • Bates College Museum of Art
  • The University of Maine Museum of Art in Bangor
  • The Ogunquit Museum of American. This is a seasonal museum

Maritime Museums

With over 5,500 miles of jagged coastline and 3,000 coastal islands, the seafaring life in Maine is the stuff of legend. When you throw a few tall tales into this salty fishermen’s stew, you end up with a distinctly complex maritime history and culture.

From Winslow Homer to Marsden Hartley, American painters have long been fascinated by Maine’s coastal beauty and the old merchant captains, sailors and fishermen who populate its villages and remote coves. In the summer, Maine’s jagged coastline and feathery blue sky are a study in stark contrasts, and the rocky shoreline seems better outfitted for blustery winter gales and storms. There is a certain romance to life at sea. However, there is also adversity, hardship and struggle. It seems that Maine’s seafaring folk are not without a wry sense of humor (as dry as a cod fish, really). Two of Maine’s quirkier maritime stories include the following: The Bait’s Motel, located in Seaport, cleverly uses a worm and hook (bait) motif to great effect, while a street in Somesville is ingeniously named Fitz Hugh Lane. It is an adroit and knowing use of the Luminist painter’s name, Fitz Hugh Lane being a maritime artist known for his heightened use of light.

If you want to get a feel for what life was like on the water, then find your sea legs and visit either the Maine Maritime Museum or the Penobscot Marine Museum.

The Maine Maritime Museum, in Bath, is in a class by itself. From exhibits and artifacts to historic shipyards and a full-scale representation of the largest sailing vessel ever built, all aspects of Maine’s maritime heritage are on display. The museum is located on the banks of the scenic Kennebec River. There is so much to do and see at the Maritime Museum that the price of admission is good for a two-day visit.

The Penobscot Marine Museum, in Searsport, is smaller than the one in Bath but no less enthralling. It is also the oldest maritime museum in Maine. It is composed of thirteen historic and modern buildings, and the entire museum is designed to resemble a 19th century fishing village. It emphasizes shipbuilding and focuses on merchant captains and their adventures at sea.

History Museums

From local historical societies and historic house museums to living history sites, Maine’s diverse culture and heritage is on display in an assortment of different venues. The Maine Historical Society’s Center for Maine History is a must-see for any serious-minded history buff. Located in Portland, the Society’s galleries and exhibits are devoted to agriculture, seafaring memorabilia and Native American arts like basket weaving and quilt making. There is also a genealogical library, so if you ever wondered if you have any descendants from the Pine Tree State, now is the time to do your research.

Maine has several Historic House Museums. Some of the state’s most famous residents include Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Sarah Orne Jewett, Parson Jonathan Fischer and General Joshua L. Chamberlain. However, not all of Maine’s historic homes are associated with famous and prominent people. If you enjoy Colonial and Federalist architecture, Palladian windows and flying staircases, there are many houses in Maine that highlight a wide range of period details.

William Faulkner famously said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Maine’s living history sites and programs are a testament to that idea. In Maine, you can view battle reenactments or take guided, candlelit tours of historic forts. Have you ever wanted to take part in an authentic ice-cutting operation? Have you ever dreamed of cooking baked beans in a traditional cooking hole in the ground, just like the Penobscot Indians used to do?

Native American Museums

The history and culture of Maine’s Wabanaki People can be traced back 12,000 years. Otherwise known as The People of the Dawnland, this loose, Native American confederacy also included the Abernaki and Maliseet tribes. The Abernaki could be found in the southern region of Maine, while the Mileseet were located in the far north. However, the largest of the group was the Penobscot tribe. Today, there are roughly 3,000 Penobscot Indians left in the United States, and most of them still live in Maine.

Maine has three large and fully accessible Native American Museums. While there are many galleries devoted to Native American crafts, or smaller Native American collections at other state museums, the Abbe Museum, Maine State Museum and Hudson Museum have the most extensive permanent exhibits.

The Abbe Museum, in downtown Bar Harbor, combines the past with the present and has collections that focus on Native American heritage preservation as well as contemporary culture. In July, the museum hosts the Native American Festival and Basket Market.

The Maine State Museum, in Augusta, has the best permanent and rotating Native American exhibits in the state. The permanent exhibit, which is titled “12,000 Years in Maine,” gives a thorough account of what archeologists have unearthed about the Native Americans in Maine.

The Hudson Museum, located on the University of Maine’s Orono College, has a Maine Indian Gallery devoted to Native American artifacts, tools, carvings, canoes, baskets and beadwork.

The Children’s Museum

While it is often said that the average person spends around five seconds viewing a work of art before moving on to the next piece in a collection, chances are that is not going to be the case at the Children’s Museum, a lively epicenter of creativity and learning that is located in Portland’s downtown Arts District.

Founded in 1976, the Children’s Museum has three floors of interactive exhibits and educational activities, all of which celebrate the power of the imagination and the wonders of play. Whether it is a rainy summer day or a cold afternoon in February, the Children’s Museum has a myriad of activities to keep families and children entertained for hours. What kind of exhibits can you expect to find? There are replicas of fire engines, lobster boats, shipyards, space shuttles and car repair shops. There is an interactive tidal touch tank, a book nook and a kid’s sized rock-wall. One of the most famous activities in the Children’s Museum is the Dress Up Theater, a place where budding actors and actresses can dress up in costume or stage their own creative plays with a variety of puppets. Has all this activity made you hungry? Coco’s Diner is a 1950s styled replica where you can order up imaginary sodas, shakes and burgers

The exhibits and programs at the Children’s Museum are specifically tailored for children between six months and ten years of age. While this 15,000 square foot museum may be dedicated to education, focusing primarily on science and early childhood development, it is a colorful setting where learning and everyday fun and adventure go hand in hand.

Transportation Museums

Whether you want to step back into the 1920s and spend the day riding an electric car, or learn about antique trolleys, World War I airplanes, railroads, schooners and automobiles, Maine has several Transportation Museums. While you are no doubt cruising the Maine Turnpike in a car outfitted with a GPS system and CD player, Maine’s first wave of tourism occurred shorty after the Civil War, when railroads and steamboats carried people to the state. Several of Maine’s popular Transportation Museums are clustered on the coast, so when you find yourself in the area be sure to set your GPS for one of the following destinations.

  • The Seashore Trolley Museum, in Kennebunkport, specializes in electric trains.
  • Learn about steam engines at the Narrow Gage Railroad Museum in Portland.
  • Antique schooners and wooden sailing vessels are on display at The Shipbuilding Museum in Bath.
  • See a 1901 Crestmobile and a 1905 Rambler Roadster at the Auto Museum in Wells.
  • The Owl’s Head Transportation Museum, near Rockland, has an excellent aviation collection, with more than twenty-eight examples of pioneer-era aircraft. It also has bicycles, carriages and automobiles dating from 1804 to 1946.
  • At The Cole Land Transportation Museum, in Bangor, you can view a complete cross-section of different types of transportation artifacts. From a 1910 handtub fire truck and military memorabilia to the largest display of snow removal equipment in the state, the Cole Land Museum has an extensive collection.
  • Feel like seeing a Stanley Steamer automobile? The Stanley Museum, in Kingfied, has exhibits devoted to all facets of the Stanley Family. There are photographs, paintings and violins on display, but the highlight of the museum is its 1905 and 1910 Stanley Steamer automobiles.

Special Interest Museums

Museums do not always have to be the hushed and academic places that we always envision them to be. From the wild and weird to the regionally quirky and peculiar, every state in the U.S. has its share of Special Interest Museums, and Maine is no different. These hidden shacks, secret rooms and back-road bungalows are like old curiosity cabinets. You never know what you are going to find inside. Cryptozoology? Yup. There is a museum dedicated to it. Sardines? You can find out more than you ever wanted to know about them. There are Special Interest Museums dedicated to lumberjacks, logging, dolls, stoves, umbrella covers, music boxes and mustard-making. Alluring and idiosyncratic, mysterious and captivating, these museums cater to a wide variety of tastes and sensibilities.

In Maine, you can visit a museum that is dedicated to bird carving as well as one that celebrates the history of snowmobiling. You can see what life was like in the 19th  century by visiting Willowbrook Village. This replica village, which is composed of thirty-six different outdoor structures and exhibits, offers visitors an authentic, 19thcentury experience. The grounds are adorned with historic houses, carriages, sleighs, an 1894 carousel and numerous trade shops.

Many of these Special Interest Museums are off-the-map and difficult to find, but the journey to uncover them is half the fun. By exploring Maine’s back roads and hidden alleyways, you will not only be able to see more of the Pine Tree State (after all, there is more to Maine than the Turnpike and Route 1) but have an opportunity to discover Maine’s alternative histories.

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