New museum explores the art of oceanography

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HARPSWELL — If Leonardo Da Vinci and Herman Melville’s Captain Ahab were roommates, they might live in a house that resembles Harpswell’s newest museum.

Nestled off Route 123 in an old boat bay, Habitat: Open Ocean is dedicated to the art of scientific illustration, and opened in July. Founders David Wheeler and his wife Catherine Sanderson hope the space will function as an interactive teaching space, as well as a museum – “a learning lab,” in their words.

Wheeler, 67, spent over three decades teaching illustration (“and some archaeology tossed in”) at nine different colleges – most recently, at a satellite campus of Pratt Institute in upstate New York. He and Sanderson moved to Harpswell this spring in order to be closer to the ocean. 

Wheeler said he had been mulling over the idea of starting a museum for some time; perhaps more facetiously, Wheeler said he got the idea when he thought to himself, “I should clean up my room.”

The sentiment is apt, given the gallery-meets-attic-meets-studio feel of the museum, which houses a collection of Wheeler’s own artwork and items he has amassed from ocean environments over the course of a lifetime.

The museum is located at 6 Cod Row; visits are by appointment and can be made by calling 833-2477. Entry is free.

The bulk of Wheeler’s work are pen and ink drawings, which line the walls of the museum.

What makes the place a museum and not a gallery is the educational, curatorial role Wheeler’s work plays: his artwork is organized, in subject and in sequence, as a time line through the history of scientific illustration.

Moving counter-clockwise around the museum’s largest room – what Wheeler calls “the laboratory” – illustrations guide visitors through the history of scientific illustration, beginning with cave drawings and ending with 20th century figures like Bob Hines, who illustrated the environmental works of Rachel Carson.

At the center of the room is a massive collection of marine objects, which visitors are encouraged to comb through with their hands. There, they may find everything from the inner ear-bone of a blue whale to the skeletal remains of a seal.

Wheeler has also forayed into sculpture, which is immediately apparent upon entering the building and visitors are met by a life-sized model of the famous 5,000-year-old ice man. Wheeler created the model out of fiberglass in the 1990s with his students. He has also worked in places like New York’s Museum of Natural History, making models of dinosaurs.

“I just go around making stuff,” Wheeler said. His modesty shouldn’t be confused with ambivalence: Wheeler’s art – both in craft and subject matter – is as much homage to the natural world as it is a fascination with it. Art, like science, is an exercise of the imagination.

“I started drawing in the womb,” he joked. “I was astonished that you could create an image with a pencil.” His artwork captures this same astonishment, but of the lives of scientists, and in the wake of their discoveries in the natural world.

Adjacent to the entryway, there is an easel displaying a massive pen-and-ink drawing of a man sitting in an a coastal hut; beside it, a 3-foot by 2-foot diorama made from seaweed, driftwood, and natural objects depicts the scene in the drawing. And beside that, an antique postcard and the original inspiration for both of Wheeler’s mixed-media renderings is propped on a table nearby.

Perhaps more than any set of pieces in the museum, the hut scene represents an evolution across media that exhibits Wheeler’s fascination with imagination as both a scientific and an artistic process.

Though news of the museum has so far traveled by word of mouth, Sanderson said about 260 people have visited the museum since it opened in July.

The pair hopes that the space will function as much more than a viewing gallery, and are working to partner with community members and organizations to offer classes and workshops in the art of scientific illustration.

“It’s a gift to Harpswell and other places beyond,” Wheeler wrote in an email.

There are no core hours of operation; Wheeler said he’s usually around during the day except for an hour or two, when he goes down to be by the ocean.

Callie Ferguson can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or cferguson@theforecaster.net. Follow Callie on Twitter: @calliecferguson.

David Wheeler and his wife, Catherine Sanderson, opened a new museum and “learning lab” this July that focuses on scientific illustration and the ocean.

Illustrator David Wheeler stands in the “laboratory” of his new museum, which takes visitors through the history of scientific illustration, and features a collection of fossils, bones, and objects found in ocean habitats.

David Wheeler stands in front of a replica he made with former students of the “Ice Man,” a 5,000-year-old skeleton that was found in the early 1990s, while holding a handmade replica of a weapon found with the remains.

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Reporter on the Brunswick/Harpswell beat. Proud Bowdoin grad that you can find reporting on municipal, school, and community news, or inside the many coffee and sandwich shops around the Midcoast. Callie can be reached at 207-781-3661 ext. 100.