Judy Monroe has been dealing with a lot of sobering, big-picture stuff lately.
She’s president and chief executive officer of the CDC Foundation, a nonprofit organization that supports the work of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The pandemic and all its impacts have been heavy on her mind.
So Monroe was delighted on a recent Portland vacation to find a place that made her stop and appreciate the beauty in the mundane, that helped her realize some small, throw-away fragments of everyday life just might be worth celebrating.
Monroe, like thousands of other visitors over the last 25 years, was enthralled with her time at The Umbrella Cover Museum on Peaks Island. It features a collection of more than 2,000 umbrella covers – the sleeves that new umbrellas come in and which most of us lose or throw away – from more than 70 different countries. It also captures stories of how some escaped the trash heap and ended up in a museum, hung like works of art.
The museum’s driving force all these years has been performer-musician Nancy 3. Hoffman. She curates the collection, gives story-filled tours and entertains visitors by singing “Let a Smile be Your Umbrella” and playing her accordion. The museum will be celebrating its 25th anniversary Tuesday with a fashion show, featuring clothes or wearable art made out of red umbrella covers donated by the Travelers insurance company.
“The quirkiness of the place is just a sheer delight; I found it to be uplifting and an inspiration. It really made my day,” said Monroe, of Atlanta, Georgia. “I love the mission statement, celebrating the mundane; there’s so much wisdom in that. I don’t think I’d ever really stopped to think about it that way.”
The Umbrella Cover Museum has captured imaginations around the world, garnering attention from tourist publications, news outlets, filmmakers and others. Hoffman and the museum have been featured on the PBS TV series “States of America,” The Weather Channel and in the quirky travel publication Atlas Obscura. In 2012, the museum was bestowed the Guinness World Record for largest collection of umbrella covers. The collection numbered 730 at that time. Guinness had no category for umbrella covers until Hoffman began lobbying them five years earlier.
The museum’s written mission statement says that it is “dedicated to the appreciation of the mundane in everyday life. It is about finding wonder and beauty in the simplest of things, and about knowing that there is always a story behind the cover.”
LOVE FOR LITTLE DETAILS
Hoffman, 71, grew up in University Heights, Ohio, near Cleveland, and has had a house on Peaks Island for nearly 40 years. She’s a musician who has performed around the world and works as a director of musical theater and cabaret shows. She also plays accordion in two local groups, the Casco Bay Tummlers, a klezmer band, and The Maine Squeeze Accordion Ensemble.
Her attention to small detail and celebrating the mundane is evident in her name, which she adopted a few years before starting the museum. She thought a numeral would be an “interesting and amusing” replacement for a run-of-the mill middle initial. So she plugged all the primary digits into her name and decided “3” sounded best. She said, being a performer, she wanted to people to notice her.
She began to think that umbrella covers were worth noticing around 1992 when she found about seven umbrella covers without umbrellas – basically the cover from every umbrella she’d ever bought. Soon after, she had an inexplicable urge to shoplift an umbrella cover – just the cover – from a store in downtown Portland. She was not sure why she did it, but realized she had to do something more constructive with her new-found umbrella cover fascination.
She started asking people to donate covers and, in 1996, opened The Umbrella Cover Museum, in her kitchen, with about 35 covers. She soon outgrew her kitchen, and the museum is now housed in a commercial space at 62 Island Ave., where this summer she’s been getting about 100 visitors a day. The museum is only open in the summer and closes on Labor Day this year. There is no admission fee, but donations are accepted.
“When I first opened, I would just get islanders wandering by, but now it’s all over the internet, and if you just Google ‘things to do in Portland,’ we pop up,” said Hoffman. “When I ask people if they know what they did with the cover for their umbrella, I get blank looks because they don’t know. Umbrella covers are almost a nonentity to most people. I find that fascinating.”
Hoffman displays hundreds of her covers at any given time, often divided into little exhibits focusing on tourism or global warming or some other theme the well-traveled covers can be tied to. She writes or prints out text cards to explain the themes or tell a cover’s story.
She recently got a donation of a cover from the Madeira region of Portugal, adorned with a colorful image of Madeira and accompanied by the donor’s story, which read like a travelogue, Hoffman said.
Another recent donation was a plain black cover from a woman in Massachusetts who wrote that she was disgruntled with her job and that over the years, she had only gotten two perks from her employer – a $5 gift card and the black umbrella. “I hope by the time you read this I have a new job,” the woman wrote to Hoffman.
At various times, the museum’s display has included long and short covers, some with buttons or snaps, others with zippers. There are covers with colorful prints and corporate logos. Some are by high-end designers, some have Disney characters. Some look like purses.
The fashion show and anniversary celebration Tuesday will be held outdoors, at 6 p.m, at the Peaks Island Lions Club on Garden Place and will include music from the Maine Squeeze Accordion ensemble. People are invited to bring a picnic supper.
For the fashion show, Hoffman parceled out 25 Travelers umbrella covers to each of 10 designers and artists, and asked them to create “wearable art” for a celebratory runway show. Some are making coats, others scarves. One creation will be an apron using multiple umbrella covers as pockets for kitchen implements, Hoffman said. Hoffman was still gathering information last week on what designers will be showing off. Judges will select winning designs and people can buy some wearable art after the show.
Hoffman got the covers from Travelers, she said, because the insurance company sponsors a golf tournament and gives out umbrellas to keep spectators and golfers dry. But the covers are no use to people on the course. Someone at Travelers heard about the museum and decided to make a gift of the spare covers, Hoffman said.
It’s Hoffman’s ability to convey her fascination for umbrella covers in a passionate and entertaining way that is the main reason the museum has lasted a quarter century, said Lynn Heinemann, a museum board member from Peaks Island. Heinemann sometimes volunteers as a docent at the museum, talking about the exhibits. But she feels she can’t duplicate what Hoffman gives visitors, including stories, music and her insights on the beauty of the mundane.
Heinemann said after she’s worked a shift as a docent at The Umbrella Cover Museum, she’s exhausted.
“It’s definitely about Nancy,” said Heinemann, of the museum’s longevity. “She’s a performer and her work at the museum is performance art.”