Bath museum opens basement to showcase rarely seen artifacts

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BATH — What lurks beneath the Maine Maritime Museum?

Visitors can find out because the Washington Street institution is opening its basement for tours, showcasing parts of its 20,000-piece collection that many members of the public have never seen before.

Only a small number of those items can be displayed at a time in the museum’s exhibits.

The collection dates back to 1964, according to senior curator Nathan Lipfert, who leads the hour-long tours each Thursday at 3 p.m.

The tours include two storage areas: one beneath the museum building that was opened in 1989, and the other underneath Long Reach Hall, a separate building added almost a decade ago.

Paintings cover almost every inch of space in one room, with ornate depictions of sailing vessels or people whose lives were intertwined with the sea. The oldest in the collection is from 1803.

“I love anything that we know anything about,” Lipfert said, referring to paintings that tell their own stories.

Since ship paintings tell more stories than portraits of people, the latter tend to receive lesser exposure, Lipfert said, a gap that the basement tours fill.

“We feel bad having all this stuff and people not being able to see it,” he said. “And we want to show people everything, and it just won’t fit into the exhibit spaces. For people who have the special interest, who want to see this stuff … we want to give them an opportunity to see the stuff and to talk with a curator who knows something about some of these things, and try and make the collection more accessible. To help people understand that museums have stuff that they don’t have out on exhibit all the time.”

The rooms, like nearly every space in the museum, are maintained at 50 percent humidity and 68 degrees, plus or minus five, Lipfert said.

The basement holds a large fleet of ship models, as well as unique items like a ship’s medicine chest from a Portland apothecary, a rickshaw, and a mug that Lipfert said was “liberated from a captured British vessel” by a privateer from Maine during the War of 1812.

There are also the original 1927 lift span controls for the Carlton Bridge, which brings to mind futuristic-looking technology from an old “Flash Gordon” serial.

One item telling a particularly interesting tale is a like-new 1941 Old Town canoe that has never been used. Charlie Cahill, who operated a garage in Bath, was starting a family and thought the family should have a canoe to play with; unfortunately, he never got around to using it.

“He evidently wasn’t a canoer, had never been in a canoe, and just kept putting off the idea of actually going ahead and getting it in the water,” Lipfert said.

The canoe sat in storage in a garage for decades before the late Cahill’s family presented it to the museum in 2004.

“It was raining a little bit on the day that they brought it to the museum to donate it, so it got a little wet,” Lipfert said, “and that’s the most water it’s ever seen.”

People interested in the tour should call the museum ahead of time at 443-1316. The fee is $12 for members and $26 for non-members, which includes general museum admission.

Alex Lear can be reached at 373-9060 ext. 113 or

Sidebar Elements

museum basement.JPGNathan Lipfert, senior curator at the Maine Maritime Museum in Bath, shows off a room of paintings, one of several storage areas of often unseen historic treasures in the museum’s basement. Tours are held there every Thursday. 

A Maine native and Colby College graduate, Alex has been covering coastal communities since 2001, and currently handles Bath, Topsham, Cumberland, and North Yarmouth. He and his wife, Lauren, live in the Portland area, and Alex recently released his third album of original music.