This is the eighth installment in an ongoing series about the unique history of Good Will-Hinckley. To read any installment, click on its link: Part I; Part II; Part III; Part IV; Part V; Part VI; Part VII.
From the moment you step under the neo-Georgian building’s high brick archway and into the main lobby, it’s like walking straight into a massive time capsule. Lifelike black bears and birds of prey look as if they’ll come alive at any moment. Rocks and minerals reveal earth’s epic geological history. Old cars and printing presses immerse you in a world before GPS and digital content. Everywhere you look, there’s a window into the past.
Sadly, the doors of the L.C. Bates Museum remain closed for now, as they have been since the beginning of March. During the past few months, I’ve been able to take a few trips over there, to reconnect with this cornerstone of the Good Will-Hinckley campus—and remind myself just how amazing the museum is. The silence is eerie. I should be hearing kids say, “Mom, look at this!” or “Dad, check this out!” I know I will again one day.
I also know that if George Hinckley were alive today, he’d be devastated to see one of his proudest legacies shuttered up—even temporarily.
One piece at a time
From the earliest days of Good Will-Hinckley, its founder believed that a museum was essential to the organization’s mission; just as important as a church, library or school.
Beginning in 1889, he sent letters to his fellow collectors asking for modest donations. The response was quick and generous. The first donation was a mounted woodpecker. Before long, he’d received enough specimens and artifacts to start his own collection.
For Hinckley, the dream was to create a “museum of museums”—a place for people to enjoy artifacts of all kinds and appreciate the value of conservation.
By 1904, the collection—which had been moved to the Moody Building—had become one of the finest in the state. Then, disaster struck when a fire destroyed the Moody Building—and everything inside. Devastated but undeterred, Hinckley started a new collection, to be housed in the newly built Quincy Manual Training Building. The museum quickly grew, in both size and eccentricity. Shark eggs, mounted pigeons, deer busts, Native American pottery, clocks, Chinese screens, spinning wheels, farm tools, Egyptian mummies—all found their way into Hinckley’s collection.
In 1922, Lewis C. Bates, a longtime benefactor of GWH, financed the conversion of the building to accommodate the fast-expanding collection. When it came time to christen the building, there was little question what its name would be.
For Hinckley, the dream was to create a “museum of museums”—a place for people to enjoy artifacts of all kinds and appreciate the value of conservation. Back then, if you lived in central Maine and wanted to see any of these things, you either had to find an illustrated encyclopedia (not common in those days), or make the long journey to Boston or New York. The Bates Museum was a gamechanger: expansive, accessible, endlessly engaging.
Building a legacy
Over the years, new attractions arrived. During the 1920s, impressionist painter Charles Hubbard designed a series of exquisite dioramas, each depicting a different Maine habitat, to be housed in the museum. In 1955, a man named Fred Parke donated a massive blue marlin caught by famed author (and avid fisherman) Ernest Hemingway. There’s an acorn mill that once belonged to the Susquehanna people who first migrated through Maine 3,500 years ago. And the list goes on.
From the moment you step under the neo-Georgian building’s high brick archway and into the main lobby, it’s like walking straight into a massive time capsule.
Today, the museum offers five different galleries for visitors to enjoy. In the mammal gallery (located on the ground floor), you’ll find hundreds of taxidermied animals, from small rodents to massive caribou. On the first floor, there’s the Audubon gallery, featuring an equally sizable collection of stuffed birds; and the Deanne Herman gallery, which includes both insects and Native American artifacts. Then, on the lower level, there’s a mineral room and a wing dedicated to farm equipment and small vehicles, including an old fire wagon and a still-functioning printing press.
Trust me: That list barely scratches the surface.
But while the exhibits have grown and evolved, the look and feel of the museum hasn’t changed much at all. This isn’t an accident. Visitors should experience this place in the same way that people did more than 100 years ago. We want them to feel like they’re being transported in time—not just through the items and exhibits, but within the building itself.
A museum of museums
When I think about the incredible progress GWH has made over the past 131 years, our curriculum—at both the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences and the Glenn Stratton Learning Center—is the first thing that comes to mind. I believe George Hinckley would be amazed at the diversity and dynamism of today’s student experience. That he’d be proud of the way we’ve pivoted in the face of this historic pandemic.
At the same time, I think he’d be thrilled to find the museum just as it was back then (or pretty darn close, anyway). If the right item came along, he’d still want us to include it—no question. But the old glass cabinets, the diorama backgrounds, the way that history seems to come alive: he wouldn’t change these for the world. And neither would our wonderful Director and Curator, Deborah Staber, who’s been stewarding our unique collections for nearly 30 years.
We don’t know when the L.C. Bates Museum will be open to the public again. But when it is, we hope our visitors will feel a newfound appreciation for what George Hinckley’s grand collection represents: a time when we didn’t need a screen to teach us about the world in front of us.