Dubbed “the beginning of America” by locals, the West Quoddy Head Lighthouse in Maine is situated at the easternmost point of the continental United States. The site also includes a modest exhibition space, making it the easternmost museum in the US. Personable, informative, and engrossing, the exhibits at Quoddy Head served as a reminder of everything I love about museums.
Situated in Quoddy Head State Park, the distinctive red and white stripped lighthouse overlooks the Quoddy Narrows strait between the US and Canada. A stone marking the lighthouse’s coordinates sits opposite a flag pole bearing the US, Canadian, and Maine flags. The park’s name derives from the local Native American tribe, the Passamaquoddy, which itself roughly translates as “pollock place,” a reference to the coast’s rich marine life.
The lighthouse boasts coastal views of Canada’s Grand Manan Island and Roosevelt Campobello International Park (the location of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s summer retreat). The latter is home to East Quoddy Lighthouse which accounts for the paradox of naming America’s easternmost lighthouse, West Quoddy Head.
During our vacation in Downeast Maine, my wife and I had read that whales are regularly sighted off the coast of Quoddy Head. This was enough of an excuse to make a two-hour drive along the coast. Having set out to spot whales, we hadn’t banked on an intriguing museum experience.
Since its automation in 1988, the lighthouse has been maintained by the West Quoddy Head Light Keepers Association (WQHLKA). Its management modestly describes the lighthouse annex as a “visitor center,” but it is, for all intents and purposes, a museum. There are displays on the history of the lighthouse, as well as guides to Maine’s wildlife. The museum’s exhibits are loosely organized. The result is pleasantly conversational, as if a Mainer were discussing architectural history and then veered into a tangent about the local wildlife.
In one room, a video tour of the lighthouse sits alongside a framed list of facts about the American Bald Eagle. Next door, a map of the Canadian-US border is hung beside a collage of a former lighthouse keeper’s family photos. The captions include “Little Bobby,” “Dorothy and Kitty,” and “Bob Brings Home a Lobster Sept 1936.” The museum’s emphasis is on communicating the totality of the locals’ lived experience. The confluence of lobster cages, uniforms, newspaper cuttings, and lighthouse ephemera feels entirely appropriate. Visitors leave with a heightened sense of what day to day life must have been like for the former lighthouse keepers.
The lighthouse center is charmingly and unapologetically retrograde. A few of its photographic displays have yellowed from sunlight exposure. I failed to notice that a caption accompanying a photograph of a crab had been mixed up with a neighboring image of a lobster. Instead of simply swapping the labels back over, the management added a third: “Yes, we know that the Jonah Crab and Northern Lobster labels are reversed.” The museum might not be flashy, but it’s certainly engaging. I admired its humor, its modesty, but most of all, the personable nature of its displays.
West Quoddy Head was a breath of fresh air, a reminder of what museums ought to be, places for stories to be shared. The accommodating staff at Quoddy Head (all of whom are dedicated volunteers) brought this all back to me. As a New York resident, I realize that museum professionals in the city often forget this. The conversation becomes about money, the acquisition of “quality” pieces, and the need for continuous expansion. The true aspirations of museums are frequently sidelined by the ever increasing demand to embrace the entertainment industry.
The West Quoddy Head Lighthouse sets, in its own unique way, a wonderful example of what museums can achieve. Standing at the beginning of America, in the impossibly beautiful and captivating state of Maine, I felt both refreshed and renewed.
West Quoddy Head Lighthouse (Quoddy Head State Park, Lubec, Maine) is open from 10am-4pm daily, from Memorial Day weekend through mid-October.
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