Old umbrella covers find a home on Peaks Island
PORTLAND — What may be one person's trash, or at best forgotten on a closet shelf, may be another person's museum rarity.
Just ask Nancy 3. Hoffman, the founder, director and curator of The Umbrella Cover Museum on Peaks Island.
(Yes, "3." is Hoffman's middle name, she explained. She changed it from "Arlene" 20 years ago after seeing another name mistakenly printed with a numeral and "really liking it.")
"Each cover is special, in different ways," Hoffman said on July 5, a rain-free day when a steady stream of island visitors gawked at her collection.
The museum is believed to be the only one of its kind in the world. Last year it set a Guinness World Record for the largest collection of the ubiquitous covers: 730.
But the official count didn't include dozens of identical covers, handmade covers and covers produced from clear plastic. Hoffman estimates the total number of her holdings at about 1,000.
The covers, most of which hang from the walls and ceilings of the two-room museum at 62-B Island Ave., originate from 52 countries.
There are 110 black covers, each with a distinct design.
There are covers made of plastic bags, porcelain and PVC pipe.
A high-end cover resembles a Chanel purse.
One cover is made of bulletproof Kevlar fiber; another is made of lead.
A Japanese cover is lined with microfibers that wick away moisture from a wet umbrella.
A tiny cover made for a Barbie-doll toy umbrella is displayed next to a 5-foot-long cover made for a giant beach umbrella.
There are covers that resemble crayons.
There's even a cover found discarded near one of the last remaining portions of the Berlin Wall. As in most of the exhibits, a small card explains the cover's provenance.
The jaw-dropping assortment of bumbershoot sheaths dates to 1996, when Hoffman said she realized she "inadvertently" had a few covers lying around her house on Peaks.
"I started wondering whether, or why, people held onto umbrella covers," she said. "And I soon became a repository for covers. It was a phenomenon."
Friends began donating their unwanted covers, until they filled much of her kitchen. She eventually rented the Island Avenue building to house the growing collection. The museum includes an "annex" – a bathroom – where adult-themed umbrella covers are displayed.
Hoffman is a professional musician who sings in 16 languages; she even sings an umbrella-themed ditty to museum-goers, while accompanying herself on accordion. She operates the museum during the summer from Tuesday-Saturday, supported by donations and sales from a small gift shop.
She said she gets about 2,000 visitors a season. Most of them, like Marnie Chalmers and Robert Smith of New York City, seem to react with amazement and delight.
"We had no idea this was here," Chalmers said Friday. "But a museum for umbrella covers just has to pique your interest."
Hoffman said her own interest is piqued by the unusual role of umbrella covers.
Unlike most forms of product packaging, umbrella covers are intended to be used repeatedly instead of discarded. About 17 percent of umbrella owners actually use the covers, according to Hoffman's admittedly unscientific survey of museum visitors.
Some owners – "especially in New York" – throw away the covers, she said. But most people hang onto them, then rarely use them.
After all, it can be difficult to squeeze an umbrella back into its cover, and there may seem little need for doing so. (From what do covers protect umbrellas? Rain?) So the covers are relegated to a closet or the bottom of a purse.
"There's a whole unconscious realm to umbrella covers," Hoffman said. "People don't really know what they do with them."
No wonder that the museum, according to its mission statement, is dedicated to "the appreciation of the mundane in everyday life. It is about finding the wonder and beauty in the simplest things, and about knowing that there is always a story behind the cover."
Hoffman puts it another way: "I just love the surprise of what the museum is all about."