2011-02-20 / Front Page

Brick Store relives old school days

Staff Writer

A mock-up of a turn-of-the-century classroom, seen last week, is the centerpiece of the “Learning is an Ornament” exhibit at the Brick Store Museum in Kennebunk.

KENNEBUNK — It was late last week when a group of children from the Shooting Star Preschool in Kennebunk learned how to identify an abacus.

They were in the perfect setting to learn about the artifact, visiting the Brick Store Museum, just across the street from their school, to take in the museum's latest exhibit, “Learning is an Ornament.” The exhibit is an examination of what school was like in the Kennebunks at or around the turn of the 20th century.

The visit began with an animated storytime, during which the museum's Jackie Campbell read the Laura Numeroff children's book “If You Take A Mouse to School.” Campbell then encouraged the children to peer closely at the anachronisms carefully arranged on the walls and floors of the gallery's space ”“ and asked if they could find a feather in the exhibit.

Jackie Campbell of the Brick Store Museum in Kennebunk, right, hands props to a group of children from the Shooting Star Preschool last week during an interactive story time in the museum's latest exhibit, “Learning is an Ornament,” a look at the history and evolution of schools in the Kennebunks.

A child immediately pointed to a black feather resting on a shelf near the gallery entrance. The feather, explained Campbell, is actually a quill pen; a flight feather from a large bird, outfitted to be dipped in ink and used to write on parchment.

Campbell then asked the children if they could identify the globe. This one was easy: A large rust-colored planet Earth was spotted on a cabinet by the window.

But when she asked them to find the abacus, Campbell was greeted by silence.

The Shooting Star Preschool group can be forgiven for not spotting the counting tool, which hasn't been used by schoolchildren to help in their arithmetic since the invention of the electronic calculator in the 1960s.

The device, comprised of beads on parallel wires held together by a frame, can be found next to an apple on the teacher's desk at the heart of the exhibit's centerpiece, a reconstruction of an old classroom the way it may have looked when the preschoolers' great-grandparents were young.

The “Learning is an Ornament” exhibit, which will run through the end of September, was largely the brainchild of museum archivist Roz Magnuson, who recently authored a book by the same name.

“A local history museum is supposed to have that information in a coherent form,” said Magnuson, and it was her goal to record all the history she could find in a single volume.

It wasn't easy.

Magnuson expected the research for her book to last about a year, but surgery on her right hand ”“ her writing hand ”“ slowed her significantly. In all, it took three years of research before she felt confident that she had enough material for the book, and the delay turned out to be something of a blessing: The extra time gave Magnuson a chance to dig even deeper into the history of Kennebunk area schools.

“If it had taken only a year, it wouldn't have been nearly as comprehensive,” she said. Among the facts she unearthed: There were 12 school districts in the Kennebunks in the 1800s, but two were disbanded by 1900, when there were five separate schools at the center of town.

Those who helped Magnuson create the exhibit didn't have to look far to find items to display.

“Ninety percent are artifacts, images, and archival materials that are part of our permanent collection,” said Cheryl Price, interim director of the Brick Store Museum.

While most of the items were lying in storage just waiting to be seen, Price said that some of the desks used in the classroom mock-up are on loan from library patrons ”“ one, said Price, was given by the president of the museum's Board of Directors.

“In a small town it's nice,” said Price, “because if you know someone, maybe they can help you out.”

Photographs posted on the walls bespeak the changes that can occur over centuries. Visitors to the exhibit, said Price, may be surprised to learn just how many schools have come and gone through the Kennebunks over the long march of decades ”“ and that some of them were only accessible by foot or by horse.

Even when the earliest school buses started ferrying children to one of the many elementary schools, they were not the familiar, boxy behemoths of today, with flashing red lights and a stop sign swinging outward from its flank. They were rudimentary, somehow, mere sketches of what they would ultimately become. These, too, can be found in the stark black and white images encircling the gallery space.

For Magnuson, laying out the exhibit's artifacts was child's play.

“It was labor-intensive, sort of, but it was nothing compared to the book,” she said.

The one part of the exhibit that Magnuson and Price agree has been a favorite of museum-goers is the large, undated photograph from an unnamed Kennebunk school that looms, as dominant as a movie projection screen, over the old teacher's desk with the apple and the abacus. The children in the photo ”“ always children, always frozen in that moment ”“ sit in their rows of desks, many with their hands folded politely in front of them, some smiling, some not.

It was a stark contrast to the children from Shooting Star, with their playful cartoon sweatshirts and denim jackets ”“ who, when they start doing their arithmetic, will likely use a calculator.

”“ Staff Writer Jeff Lagasse can be contacted at 282-1535, Ext. 319, or at jlagasse@journaltribune.com.

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