Sunday, March 04, 2012

Tour of Acadia National Park’s Curatorial Center

Last autumn, John and I visited one of our favorite places, Acadia National Park, on Mount Desert Island, Maine. Like many of the National Parks, it has its own archives that are open for research. It boasts remarkable natural and local history collections that I just had to see. Fortunately, I was able to book a tour with Robyn King (see below), and have a wonderful time learning more about the holdings at Acadia.

About the Museum Technician
Usually, this section is reserved for “About the Archivist,” but my gracious and enthusiastic tour host Robyn King (shown below) is a National Park Service Museum Technician.

From Acadia National Park Archives

At the time I visited Acadia, Robyn had just joined the staff about four months prior. Still, she gave me an excellent tour of the facilities and showed me all kinds of interesting specimens and objects. She also promised to learn more about the manuscripts and papers in the collection, so that when I return, she can show me the treasures in those boxes.

Before moving to Maine, Robyn served as a curatorial assistant at the New York State Museum in Albany, and as a site interpreter at the Ulysses S.Grant Cottage in Wilton, New York. She received her double-major, History and Anthropology degree from the State University of New York in Oneonta. She also served two years in the Peace Corps, stationed in Niger.

Robyn wanted to become a curator because she was inspired by one of her teachers. She explains, “In junior high school, my Social Studies teacher told our class that when she worked at the New York State Museum, their storage facility was better than the Museum itself. It sparked my interest in wanting to see behind the scenes at museums and handle artifacts that the general public could not.” I know exactly what she means, although, at the same time, I know we also both derive a great deal of pleasure in making exhibits of these materials and allowing researchers access to these items.

At this writing, Robyn’s on furlough to the Sagamore Hill National Historic Site, so you won’t run into her at Acadia if you visit before early April. However, the staff there is very knowledgeable, friendly, and helpful.

About the Archive
The archives at Acadia are housed in the William Otis Sawtelle Curatorial Center, the facility built in 1996 to house this National Park’s archival and museum collections. The bulk of the materials originated at the Ilseford Museum, established in 1927 on Little Cranberry Island, Maine.

Two full-time staffers, Robyn and Rebecca Cole-Will, the Cultural Resources Manager, care for the collections and provide research services to the patrons and researchers. Robyn told me that the Acadia’s Curatorial Center has many volunteers in the peak season and immediately afterward. Retired volunteers can stay for up to a month at a time.

The Center’s patrons include park employees, volunteers, students (from high school through graduate school), and researchers around the country. Approximately 10 researchers per week visit the Center. Last summer, the Center hosted two doctoral candidates who worked together on a project entitled “Flora of Acadia and the people who loved them.” They plan to return this summer.

Robyn says, “We have a researcher writing a book on all the ships that have come through Frenchman Bay and its history. We have another researcher who is writing a book using the Naval magazine The Acadian as the main reference; and we have four researchers in Maine and New England who have started their graduate school research, which will last through the semester.

The Center’s collection maintenance is funded through Federal Operating Funds, and complex conservation and preservation efforts are sent to the Northeast Museum Service Center or private conservation firms.

About the Collections
Although a great deal of physical specimens are located at Acadia, the park’s herbarium is housed at the College of the Atlantic, in Bar Harbor. Robyn and her colleagues also work closely with the Abbe Museum in Bar Harbor. The National Park has a very active curatorial program. According to the NPS Acadia web site, “More than 1.4 million objects and documents are in the collection from both Acadia National Park and Saint Croix Island International Historic Site.” Saint Croix Island, a small island located on the border between the United States and Canada, in the Bay of Fundy, is one of two International Historical Sites/Parks (the other is Franklin D. Roosevelt Campobello International Park in Canada).

The Center’s holdings date as far back as 1596 (the oldest materials are from Saint Croix Island). The most popular collections are the Sawtelle Collection, Proctor Collection, Cranberry Isles Collection, Carroll Farm Collection, and U.S. Naval Collection from Winter Harbor. In the photo below are some examples of furniture from the Carroll Farm Collection.

From Acadia National Park Archives

The Carrolls lived on their farm between 1825-1917, but then moved to Southwest Harbor to be closer to more people. They still owned the land, but eventually rented it to summer visitors. In 1982, the family transferred ownership of the property to Acadia National Park. The Carrolls left quite a lot of evidence of their life behind, including books, correspondence from Ireland, and the contents of their “mountain home.”

Acadia’s collections also include many maps and architectural drawings. Below is a drawing of one of the original park signs followed by a photo of Robyn holding one of the early signs.

From Acadia National Park Archives

From Acadia National Park Archives

There are more than 15,000 cataloged biological specimens on site, including birds, insects, mammals, and fish. Below is a photo of three owls in the collection.

From Acadia National Park Archives

Two collections that have attracted quite a few researchers over the years are the William H. Proctor invertebrate and the Harold White dragonfly/damselfly collections. According to the Acadia web site, “from 1928 to 1944, William H. Procter studied the invertebrates in the park.” Below are some of the samples he collected.

From Acadia National Park Archives

Acadia holds annual BioBlitz events to attract researchers and volunteers who will collect an assigned invertebrate for 24 hours. This year, in mid-July, the lucky Blitzers will be collecting aquatic insects. Last year’s BioBlitz was all about Lepidoptera. Below is a photo of a few samples collected during the BioBlitz of 2011.

From Acadia National Park Archives

Here’s something I’d never thought I’d say/write – below is a photo of a specimen drawer full of voles:

From Acadia National Park Archives

Of the many projects underway at Acadia’s archive, probably one of the most interesting is the Paintings and Art project. The staff and volunteers are collecting information about the Artists in Residence, photographing them for the new NPS museum website, and rotating the paintings in headquarters and at the Center. These artists donate one piece from the works they create while in residence at Acadia. I’m looking forward to seeing the works digitized because the ones I saw were located in a dark area of the archive, and therefore not easily photographable (even with my good low-light camera).

I’m very glad that Acadia is within a day’s drive of so many places in the Northeast. It gives the visitor a new perspective on the vibrant coastal life that can be had in Maine. The park also provides researchers with rich natural and local history resources within a beautiful setting. My favorite time to go is in the Fall, because I enjoy the cooler weather and colorful leaves, but no matter what time you visit, you won’t be able to miss why it’s called the “Pine Tree State.”

Contact Information
William Otis Sawtelle Curatorial Center
Acadia National Park
PO Box 177
Bar Harbor, ME 04609


Lee Price said...

Thanks for this great entry on Acadia's Curatorial Center! Since my son is a first-year student at College of the Atlantic (great college, by the way), I shared this entry with them and they posted it on their Facebook page today. I hope some new people discover your fine blog through their link! Lee

Deb Schiff said...

Thanks, Lee. That's so kind of you! And kudos to College of the Atlantic, one of the unsung heros of our East Coast colleges.