About the Saco Museum

Located on Saco's historic Main Street, the Saco Museum is a regional museum of fine and decorative arts and historic artifacts. It is the third oldest museum in Maine. The Saco Museum was founded in March of 1866 as the York Institute by a group of men from widely different backgrounds, who shared an interest in the pursuit of knowledge. Their pledge was that none of them should die in possession of an uncommunicated historical fact. The stated purpose of the organization was "to promote the study of Natural History; encourage Science and Art; also to collect and preserve whatever relates to the Natural and Civic history of York County."

The first president of the Institute was John Johnson, who had been an early pioneer in the science of photography and was respected for his important chemical experiments and scientific lectures. The first members included the artist Charles Henry Granger, (Click here for more information about Granger's work and some examples) author and publisher John S. Locke, and the noted historian John Wingate Thornton, as well as prominent doctors, lawyers, and businessmen. By the 1880's the Institute could boast of members from across the United States, and corresponding members from all over the world, including Dom Pedro, the Emperor of Brazil. In 1891 the Institute accepted women as members, and soon welcomed the celebrated author Sarah Orne Jewett to the membership.

The museum's collections began as a repository of curiosities brought in by members to educate and amuse the other members. The first donation was a piece of magnesium presented by Professor Johnson on April 12, 1866, and which was "burned for the gratification of the Institute." The fine arts collection was established in 1867 when the Institute librarian George Emery donated a pair of full-length portraits of his great-grandparents, Thomas and Elizabeth Cutts, by the deaf artist John Brewster, Jr. In the tradition of formal art academies, the artist Charles Granger donated a plaster bust of himself. The natural history collections included a bald eagle caught in Saco in 1870, an alligator presented alive at an Institute meeting in 1871, and a large collection of birds of New England purchased in 1877.

As a product of the lyceum movement, the Institute sponsored educational lectures, plays, and musical entertainments, a tradition that continues to the present. At early meetings, members would read aloud from scientific and historical journals, and lecture on their favorite topics, such as "The Germ Theory of Disease", "Electricity", "The Gulf Stream", and "Atmosphere". In the 1870's Captain George V. Jordan built a model raft to illustrate his tale to fellow members of how he rescued his crew and ship's cat after a shipwreck in the Caribbean.

The course of the Institute changed in 1926, when Josephine Pierce, Orestes Pierce, and Henrietta Pierce Watkinson donated the museum's present building. The museum's distinctive red brick Colonial Revival building was designed by the noted Maine architect John Calvin Stevens in 1926 as fire-proof gallery space for the Institute's extensive collections. The galleries were oriented toward fine arts displays, and many of the older exhibits were dismantled. The nature of the collection changed dramatically with the death of the last founding member of the Institute, George Emery, in 1933. By the terms of Judge Emery's will, a large portion of his renowned collection of Federal period furniture, portraits, and personal effects belonging to the Cutts and Thornton families of Saco was given to the Institute. In 1950 and 1982 respectively, Almira Locke McArthur and Dorothy Dennett, a daughter and granddaughter of founding members, gave their family collections to the museum. These and hundreds of other generous gifts from local families have made the Saco Museum's collection one of the finest and best documented in northern New England.

Recent expansions to the museum have greatly increased both exhibit and storage space. In the 1970s, the York Institute merged with the Dyer Library Association to provide an integrated cultural experience for visitors and the local community. The library's special collections contain thousands of books and documents relating to Maine history and genealogy. The museum's name was changed in 2000 to the Saco Museum.

The museum's galleries are set up to allow changing exhibitions showcasing the extraordinary collections, special interpretive exhibits, and important works by contemporary Maine artists. Permanent exhibits include paintings, furnishings, and household objects with documented histories of ownership in the Saco valley in the 18th and 19th centuries. Period bedchambers offer insights into the life-styles of both the elite and working classes in 19th-century Saco. The museum also has a display of antique natural history specimens, including birds of New England. 

For more about the Saco Museum’s collections, click here.