Offering two locations in Bar Harbor and Mount Desert Island, Maine, the Abbe Museum celebrates the Maine’s Wabanaki Nation, striving to decolonize the museum process and honor the area’s indigenous people. The modern-day Wabanaki Confederacy, known indigenously as the “People of the First Light,” is comprised of five Native American and First Nations tribes that have historically resided throughout the Wabanahkik, or Acadia, area of Maine, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia.
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Prior to the arrival of Europeans in North America, the Passamaquoddy people inhabited much of what is now Maine and New Brunswick, while the Mi'kmaq, Maliseet, Abenaki, and Penobscot tribes were spread throughout areas in Canada’s Atlantic provinces, including Nova Scotia and the Saint John River valley. The tribes historically spoke Algonquian languages and subsisted in a seasonal hunter-gatherer culture, encompassing territories spanning from present-day Newfoundland to New Hampshire’s Merrimack Valley. Following European colonization of the Americas, the Wabanaki people became historical allies of French and British settlers, partly as a strategic move against the Mohawk people of modern-day New York and New England. In 1993, Wabanaki Confederacy gatherings were revived, expanding to encompass the Métis Nation, and in 2010, non-indigenous environmental and social activists were invited to join Confederacy meetings following the United Nation’s Declaration of Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
The Abbe Museum nonprofit organization was founded in 1927 by American surgeon and radiologist Robert Abbe, who amassed a large collection of indigenous artifacts and archaeological materials throughout his life. In 1928, Abbe opened the first Abbe Museum on Mount Desert Island, conceived as a seasonal trailside museum within Acadia National Park displaying artifacts and exhibits pertaining to the area’s indigenous cultures. In 2001, a permanent year-round Abbe Museum location was opened on the Maine mainland in downtown Bar Harbor, offering more than 10 times the exhibit and programming space of the original facility. In 2009, Cinnamon Catlin-Legutko, a well-known advocate for museum decolonization, took over as the museum’s CEO
Today, the Abbe Museum is operated as a nonprofit organization and is the only museum in the state of Maine dedicated to the history of the area’s indigenous population. The museum became a Smithsonian affiliate in 2013, the only museum in the state to participate in the program. The original Acadia National Park museum, located at Sieur de Monts Spring, is one of only two private trailside museums remaining within the National Park System today and is open to the public from late May through October. The new downtown Bar Harbor location offers summer hours from May through October, with limited operation hours in November, December, February, March, and April.
The Sieur de Monts building on Mount Desert Island is a rare example of Mediterranean architecture in the Maine area, designed in 1928 by architect Edmund M. Gilchrist as a blend of Spanish Colonial Revival and Italian Renaissance styles. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, noted as one of the state’s earliest buildings intended for housing museum collections. The museum is constructed in a unique octagonal style, designed specifically with Abbe’s personal collections in mind, and still showcases a number of artifacts from Abbe’s original collections today. Featured items include a 2,000-year-old flute, a collection of spear and arrow points, and a powder horn formerly belonging to Penobscot chief Orono. A St. Sauveur: A Meeting of Nations exhibit also chronicles early interactions between Wabanaki people and Europeans.
The Bar Harbor museum features a number of permanent and rotating temporary exhibits, including the flagship People of the First Light exhibit. The exhibit spans more than 12,000 years of Wabanaki history, using oral histories and traditions, artifacts, historical accounts, and multimedia and digital interactive elements to tell the story of the Nation’s culture, conflicts, and adaptation in the modern world. A number of Wabanaki artists, including Maliseet illustrator Gina Brooks, were integrally involved in the exhibit’s design, which is centered around a two-story sculptural ash tree. Rotating temporary exhibits focus on traditional aspects of Wabanaki culture and the works of modern artists, and a number of spaces throughout the museum offer opportunities for quiet reflection.
Ongoing Programs and Education
Guided tours of the Bar Harbor museum are offered for small groups and organizations, including curriculum-incorporated field trip opportunities for elementary and secondary school students. Distance learning classroom programs are also offered, focusing on topics such as native storytelling, comparative economics, and stereotype deconstruction. A variety of public programming is offered throughout the year at both museum locations, including discussion groups, workshops, and demonstrations presented by Wabanaki scholars and artisans.
26 Mt Desert St, Bar Harbor, ME 04609, Phone: 207-288-3519