Enlightening Subject

Last week, as part of our public programs series, author and Brunswick resident Jane Brox came to MHS to talk about her critically acclaimed book, Brilliant: The Evolution of Artificial Light. The book made several of last year’s “Best Of” lists and with good reason–it’s full of fascinating stories told with lyrical prose.

Author Jane Brox takes questions from the attentive and appreciative audience.

“Brox’s extraordinary history of artificial light is aptly named,” wrote a reviewer for Time Magazine, which named it a “Top 10 Nonfiction Book” of 2010. “It’s not just a record of technological innovation; it’s a great human fable about how we went from desperately fending off darkness to searching for the last vestiges of true night in a light-bedazzled world.”

During her talk at MHS, Brox extemporaneously interspersed facts and anecdotes collected during her five years researching and writing the book with readings from it. The Caves at Lascaux, medieval Europe, the transition from whale oil to kerosene, the stark differences between urban and rural electrification, and contemporary light pollution were some of the many points she touched on. Her graceful and gentle way of speaking was almost meditative, befitting her “enlightening” subject.

A variety of telephone and electrical line insulators in the CMP collection.

In addition to being a captivating history of something we all now take for granted, Brox’s book highlights a major effort currently underway at MHS. The author’s visit comes at a time when Maine Historical museum staff are more than a year into processing the massive Central Maine Power (CMP) collection.

The collection—donated to MHS by the company in 2002 and physically transferred in 2004—provides a case study of rural electrification in Maine from 1890 to 1998, one of the great technological transformations in American life. The CMP collection is vast, with approximately 1,878 objects and 1500 linear feet of archival material. It includes early electrical equipment and appliances; advertising and public education materials; and extensive documentation of the politics, economics, and business practices of the utility industry in the 20th century. A 2010 Museums for America grant from the Institute of Museum & Library Services (IMLS) made processing the collection possible.

Several early toasters, part of the CMP collection showcasing electrification in the home.

Interestingly, Brox noted that she originally intended Brilliant to focus exclusively on rural electrification, a subject near to her heart as someone who grew up on a family farm. (Her three previous books comprise a memoir trilogy about that farm and her family.) Her focus broadened, however, as she began researching and became entranced by the larger story.

Once the CMP collection has been fully cataloged, plans call for exhibits and programming related directly to the objects and archives. So if you missed Jane Brox last week, who knows… maybe she’ll be illuminating the subject for us again down the road.

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