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BATH — Coming in from the cold and hearing Cuban music waft through the air around Maine Maritime Museum’s latest gallery exhibit can make it feel like it isn’t mid-February.
The warm feeling will last through Maine’s traditionally fickle spring, since “The Tropics Next Door: A Look at Maine and the Caribbean” runs through May 5.
“This is a good exhibit for the winter, because it’s like an escape to the tropics,” Katie Spiridakis, the museum’s marketing and communications manager, said Feb. 13 during a tour of the showcase. “… The winter’s a slow season for us, but we are open year-round, so (we wondered), what are some themes that would inspire people to get out of their house?”
Assembled by Curator of Exhibits Chris Timm, the exhibit delves into the connection “the islands” had with Maine’s seafaring history – trade between the two parts of the world in the sailing days of the 18th and 19th centuries, and the experiences of Maine mariners and the families who accompanied them.
“A lot of the vessels that were built in Bath made their way to the Caribbean at some point,” Spiridakis explained.
A trip south to ports in Havana and St. Thomas took about 18 days, a relatively brief trip for the times, according to the museum.
Personal sketches, artwork, photos, objects that were traded, and souvenirs illustrate that history. As does a display of Stephen Etnier’s mid-20th-century paintings, inspired by the sailor’s travels south. Etnier’s son, David Etnier, is the museum’s boat captain.
On a window nearby, an image of three palm trees is framed on the glass against the real-life backdrop of the snow-covered shores of the Kennebec River.
Along with the many displayed items is an interactive exhibit where replicas of food items can be placed on a sensor and their Caribbean ingredients are flashed through a burlap bag. Anadama bread, for example, contains Jamaican molasses.
“Some of these hands-on things … are great for families, keep people engaged,” Spiridakis noted.
In turn, Maine supplied commodities like fish and wood. Falmouth supplied 10 percent of all wood imported to the Caribbean between 1768-1772, according to the museum.
The informational displays highlight the sometimes-checkered history of American trade with the Caribbean.
“This region helped fuel New England’s colonial economy, but its people were poorly understood and its resources exploited,” a wall display at the start of the exhibit states. “By the end of the nineteenth century, newspapers and magazines across the country debated the scope of American intervention and expansion.”
The explosion of the USS Maine in Havana Harbor in 1898 and resultant 266 deaths marked a dark point in that history. Although a coal fire that ignited an ammunition storage area was found to be the probable cause, speculation, an official inquiry and sensation-spouting newspapers placed the blame on a Spanish mine.
The USS Maine had been there to protect American interests during Cuba’s war of independence from Spain. Its destruction led to the Spanish-American War, causing greater American intervention in the Caribbean, according to the museum.
That event is part of a series of talks hosted by the 243 Washington St. museum, and sometimes off-site, through April. “The USS Maine and American Propaganda” will be held at the museum from 2-3 p.m. Saturday, March 23.
A full list is available at mainemaritimemuseum.org/events.
The music accompanying the exhibit is by Primo Cubano, which translates to “Cuban cousin.” The Maine-based band produces music that blends African and Spanish structure and rhythms, a key component of Salsa music.
“We try to create diverse exhibits, so that even if you’re not interested in a specific subject matter, there’s something that’s going to appeal to you,” Spiridakis said.
Maine Maritime Museum’s “Tropics Next Door” exhibit includes relics from the USS Maine, which exploded in Havana Harbor in 1898.
The Bath museum also features the paintings of Stephen Etnier, who spent the later part of his life in Harpswell. He sailed often to Caribbean islands such as the Bahamas and Haiti, depicting the everyday lives of its residents through his paintings.
Photos of palm trees on a window in the museum’s exhibit juxtapose the Caribbean’s tropical plants with the snow-covered shores of Maine’s Kennebec River.