Mount Desert Oceanarium rebuilds collection

First published in the MLA Newsletter, August, 2011.

Rebuilding a collection full of history is not an easy task. Nevertheless, David Mills, founder and director of the Mount Desert Oceanarium in Bar Harbor, is hopeful. “It’s a special community and people have been hugely generous,” he said. In June, a fire broke out at the Oceanarium’s Lobster exhibit building in Bar Harbor and destroyed many of the displays. While some items cannot be replaced, such as a replica made by Dick Black of a trap his father used when lobsters were selling at two cents a pound or an English trap created in memory of fishermen lost at sea, Mills said he has already received many generous donations. One donation came from Clean Moves, a fire restoration company, which is helping the Oceanarium restore all that was salvaged from the fire. The company has donated their time and services to the project.

The Oceanarium, which is dedicated to educating people about marine life and industry, remains open for business as it has for more than thirty years. The idea for an ocean museum came about after a memorable vacation the Mills family took in Maine. “We lived in Cincinnati, but often visited my wife’s family in Bangor. During one of our visits to Maine, we stayed on Little Cranberry Island. The fishermen were very generous, taking us out on their boats, bringing in stuff from the ocean for us to look at,” Mills said. He and his son had taken scuba diving lessons at the YMCA in Cincinnati so on the island that summer they had the chance to see Maine sea life up close and personal.

“On the ride home the kids were crying, ‘why can’t we stay in Maine?’” So Mills and his wife Audrey started to think, “Why can’t we?” They didn’t know what they would do, but knew they loved Maine and the sea life they saw, and believed that other people would be interested in learning about marine life as well. Mills, a minister in an inner city church at the time, didn’t find an answer right away. “It was in 1970 when I was praying for direction for the church programs and God said ‘get off your ass and start that museum you’ve been dreaming of.’”

Mills and his family started the Oceanarium in 1972 in Southwest Harbor at an old hardware store. In 1990, the Oceanarium moved to Bar Harbor where a new lobster hatchery was built and the lobster exhibit was moved into its own building. The facility is surrounded by a salt marsh, which is also one of the Oceanarium’s exhibits.  “The first year was very slow. We had fewer visitors than people thought we would,” said Mills.

Now, however, the Oceanarium sees many hundreds of people come through its doors in the summer. There is a staff of ten people, including college interns, who answer questions, give presentations, and walk people through the museum. The Oceanarium offered the lobster hatchery, a salt marsh tour and the now-destroyed lobster museum, which included a touch tank, a model boat with traps, a mural painted by Ricky Alley and many games and displays. “We’re not huge or fancy, but we have many venues for teaching,” Mills said.

Mills estimated that a new building would be up in a few months. In the meantime, the remains of the lobster exhibit have been moved to the lobster hatchery building, the touch tank is outside under a large canopy and party tents have been erected for more exhibits. “We want to know how we can make the Oceanarium new and better,” Mills said. “Maybe a new display on women in lobstering or more on the present and future lobster industry.” One item Mills said they would really like to have on display is a hoop net, the first type of trap used to catch lobsters.

A crucial part to the lobster museum was the working model of a lobster boat. Educators, whether staff or local lobstermen, stood in the boat to give presentations and demonstrate how lobstermen set and haul traps. Mills said they have been looking for a new boat to replace the one lost in the fire.  “We need a boat that measures no more than 22 feet from the propeller to the stem at the bow and is about eight feet wide,” said Mills. “This is one of the most important parts of the museum and we’ve been looking for a replacement.”

“People have been cleaning out their garages and bringing us traps and other things to display since the fire,” said Mills. He said that if anyone has something to donate or ideas for new displays, to call the Oceanarium at 207-288-5005, send them an email at, or stop by to visit them at 1351 State Route 3 in Bar Harbor.

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