Maine Maritime Museum Has All the Bells and Whistles

The Bath museum’s latest exhibit tunes in to the sounds of the coast.

For her Maine Maritime Museum exhibit, sound artist Dianne Ballon pointed her mic at the radio-controlled foghorn of Portland Head Light
By Nora Saks
Photos courtesy of Maine Maritime Museum and Dianne Ballon
From our May 2024 issue

For the last 30 years, Dianne Ballon has had a recurring dream about searching for musical instruments in a secondhand shop. Last year, when she was invited into the basement at Bath’s Maine Maritime Museum to peruse its collection of antique and vintage bells, whistles, horns, and other navigational instruments, she was amazed. “It was exactly like the dreams,” Ballon says. “That night, I thought about all the objects talking to each other like, ‘Who is she going to pick?’”

A Portland-based sound artist, Ballon makes field recordings of bird songs, creaking docks, waterfalls, and whatever else catches her ear, and records interviews and plays for radio broadcasts and museum exhibitions. Now, she’s teamed up with Maine Maritime Museum curator Catherine Cyr on Lost and Found: Sounds of the Maine Coast by Dianne Ballon, in which visitors can tune in to her recordings of the Maine coast and the museum’s nautical instruments and see some of the devices up close. 

For her Maine Maritime Museum exhibit, sound artist Dianne Ballon (seated at right and bottom left) pointed her mic at 19th-century nautical bells, an early-20th-century boxed foghorn, and the radio-controlled foghorn at Portland Head Light. Museum staffers Cosette Veeder-Shave (bottom left) and Catherine Cyr helped with the recordings.

Dome-shaped overhead speakers project the mournful moan of the foghorn at Cape Elizabeth’s Portland Head Light and the methodical toll of the retired 1914 Fiddler’s Reach Fog Signal, a pyramidal tower equipped with a bell that helped ships negotiate a dangerous bend in the Kennebec River. (The bell now resides in front of the museum.) Through telephone-like handsets, guests can listen to waves lashing the rocks at Schoodic Point, a lobsterboat engine revving in South Bristol Harbor, the chime of the engine-room bell from the circa 1884 tugboat Seguin, and the resonant peal of an 1852 bell from Phippsburg’s former Minott Shipyard. “When that bell was rung, did it notify workers that it was time to break for lunch or call it a day?” Ballon wonders. “It opened me up to that whole era.” 

The sounds the instruments made were sometimes just as curious. When Cyr cranked the bellows in an early-20th-century boxed foghorn, she and Ballon expected to hear a deep groan. Instead, the device gave a burst of short, high-pitched squawks like a horn wielded by a clown. “All of a sudden, my coworkers are hearing honk-honks and ding-dings coming from collections storage,” says Cyr, who has been working with the curatorial staff to expand the scope of the museum’s installations beyond the ships, ship captains, and shipbuilders it has historically concerned itself with. “It was really cool to use these objects that had been sitting silently for decades and give them purpose again.”

The exhibit is housed in a large, vaulted-ceilinged room rendered in shades of deep-sea blue and rain-slicker yellow. Sprinkled among the listening stations are glass cases displaying items like 19th-century brass speaking trumpets (for amplifying one’s voice over the roaring sea), a 1955 boatswain’s pipe (for whistling to crew members from a distance), and an early-20th-century steamship watch bell (for keeping track of time during a sailor’s watch) that were too fragile to be recorded. In the parlance of the exhibit’s titular extremes, their sounds (in contrast to those Ballon “found”) have been lost. 

But the status of other sounds is a bit foggier. Take the Portland Head Light foghorn. “A lot of people have grown up with that sound,” Ballon says. “It’s part of our collective memory.” But when she ventured out on a pea-soupy morning to record the horn, it never blared. Ballon was surprised to learn the instrument is now activated by mariners (and occasionally by lighthouse staff entertaining tourists) via radios. “I’ll hear the foghorn on a sunny day and it really kind of breaks my heart,” Ballon says. “But that’s the elusiveness of sound. That’s what keeps me coming back.” 

Lost and Found: Sounds of the Maine Coast by Dianne Ballon is on view through November. 243 Washington St., Bath. 207-443-1316.

May 2024, Down East Magazine

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