By Will Grunewald
From our May 2023 issue
The Maine Maritime Museum is in Bath, the City of Ships, just a half mile down the road from Bath Iron Works, Maine’s largest shipyard. And so ships and the people who build and sail them have, unsurprisingly, been the museum’s chief preoccupation over its six-decade history. If capstans, harpoons, sea chests, and other old nautical paraphernalia are what float your boat, don’t worry — there’s still plenty of that on display. But now there’s also SeaChange: Darkness & Light in the Gulf of Maine, a conceptual installation, by the Gulf of Maine EcoArts collective, that looks unlike anything the museum has shown in the past.
The curatorial staff has added several new faces of late, and this project, exhibition coordinator Catherine Cyr says, reflects an effort to “expand what a maritime museum can be.” In a dimly lit anteroom, large paintings depict floodwaters overtaking houses, pollution billowing from smokestacks, birds dying en masse, flames engulfing trees, and so on. The wooden skeleton of a right whale hangs overhead. Boards cut into jagged shards, evocative of glass or plastic or other detritus that humans deposit in the oceans, are inscribed with statistics. For instance: the Gulf of Maine’s phytoplankton population has fallen by two-thirds in the past 20 years. This, clearly, is the Darkness of the exhibit’s titular dichotomy. On one wall, Portland muralist Ryan Adams has written BROKEN BEYOND REPAIR. Close examination reveals a question mark, nearly obscured by the mosaic-like patterning and the dark coloration, punctuating that grim pronouncement. Perhaps all is not yet lost?
The next room, cast in a blue-green glow, is the Light. Here, visitors find a creative vision of Cashes Ledge, an underwater mountain range that lies some 70 miles offshore. It’s a difficult patch of ocean to fish, owing to the rocky peaks beneath the waves, and thus was only lightly worked until, in 2002, fisheries managers closed it to commercial harvesting. Today, the ledge is vital nursery habitat for many species, and it’s probably the last best example of the pre-industrial Gulf of Maine. Its very existence, however circumscribed and however threatened, is indeed cheering.
With a combination of painting, sculpture, fabric art, audio, video, and more, Maine Maritime Museum’s SeaChange immerses viewers in the watery world of Cashes Ledge. Photos courtesy of Maine Maritime Museum
The focal point of this second, high-ceilinged room is a towering recreation of Ammen Rock, decorated with painted and sculptural depictions of marine plants and animals. The real Ammen Rock rises some 700 feet from the seafloor. This one, made of wood, is about 16 feet tall. Around it, long strands of ruffled fabric dangle from above to evoke the massive kelp forests that grow throughout the ledge. Fish made of tin cans glint among the faux kelp, and pillowy spheroids are lit from within like bioluminescent comb jellyfish. A continuous loop of underwater recordings taken by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration babbles in the background, and ripples and bubbles projected along the wall heighten the sense of submersion. It’s a strange, absorbing, peaceful place to linger.
Several smaller spaces branch off. In the back, there’s a spiral screen playing dive footage from the real Cashes Ledge (sans context, it might be mistaken for footage from the tropics). A nook on one side displays portraits of prominent conservationists from around the world, with corresponding quotations (“The most important thing we extract from the ocean is our existence,” marine biologist Sylvia Earle said). There’s also a room where kids can craft their own sea life from recycled materials, and that’s also where detailed wall plaques explain the ecological significance and the fragility of Cashes Ledge. Sequestering text-heavy elements in a side room was strategic, to let the visual splendor of Ammen Rock and the kelp forests sink in on their own. “We didn’t want it to feel so didactic or scientific,” Cyr says. “It’s experiential. It’s art.”