DOWNTOWN MANCHESTER — Do locals ever act like tourists at home? A tourist immerses himself in some of the best places in a place, eager to experience what it has to offer. Too often, locals—okay, I’ll speak for myself—too often settle into a rut and skip the places tourists travel hours to find. I decided to be a tourist in the Northshire and see what I was missing.
First stop: American Fly Fishing Museum at Manchester Center. Coincidentally, this is an excellent time to visit the museum as it has just rebranded. Perhaps the word “rebranding” needs a rebrand, but at heart it is an exercise in identity. Who are we? What have we been and how can we be better going forward? Organizations (and individuals?) that don’t stop and take stock risk becoming the next Sears, Atari or Zenith.
We can see the problem of identity in stark relief if we go back to the original artwork used by the museum in the late 1960s and early 1970s: singular white man, old-fashioned clothing, old lady’s wand and coil school: nostalgia for white. men, perhaps, but not exactly an embrace of the sport in the future. This logo was discarded a long time ago.
The recent rebranding effort took about a year, executive director Sarah Foster told me, and those involved focused first on core values and attributes — water, fish, fly, as well as preserving history and the artefacts of fly fishing, and an appeal to a wide audience). The group then moved on to see how these aspects could be best illustrated.
He showed me several competing examples for the logo. The group liked the shield, which implied protection. Trustee Adam Trist, in his blog about the rebrand, notes that the museum went for a vibrant color palette, suggesting water.
The leaders emphasized the acronym. Just as Kentucky Fried Chicken morphed into KFC 30 years ago, the American Fly Fishing Museum, perhaps more tied to tradition, now sought out the nimbler AMFF (from 11 syllables to four), an acronym not quite as elegant as a floating fly line. through the air Well, maybe, if you pause: AM… FF. But it doesn’t matter. The acronym was used a lot by members, according to Foster, so emphasizing it seemed right.
But we’re going to the same museum, right? Although the museum is close to and supported by the Orvis flagship store, it is a stand-alone entity, not an auxiliary operation of Orvis. At the museum, I was greeted by Bob Goodfellow, a healthy, well-known fellow and former art director of National Geographic magazine. Her dog, Emme, is also part of the cozy team, sometimes walking outside, even in the snow. Bob gave me the general design: collection of fishing related art, Joan and Lee Wulff exhibit, library upstairs. The space is modern, fresh and airy, in short, welcoming.
Before I get into the exhibits and other aspects of the museum, let me admit one thing: I’ve gone fly fishing maybe three times in my life, the last time was 20 years ago, and the most I caught was the low foliage While I am amazed that a person can tie a fly smaller than a kernel of popcorn, my typical day is not spent thinking about, let alone participating in, fly fishing.
I’m sure diehards, who know their wet flies from nymphs and dry flies, will approach the museum differently than I, an angler.
Enter the art collection. Next, you’ll see an 1873 painting by Edward Lampson Henry titled “Fishing by the Stream,” a bucolic scene of some well-dressed people, a dog nearby. Look closer, and you’ll see that the inept, quoted man has hooked his dog, not a fish, causing passers-by to look up. The painting suggests a different perspective on humor in 1873; Most of us today wouldn’t find piercing a dog with a hook a real knee-slap. But, as the poster suggests, we see the tensions of people in those days striving – and failing – to return to a more “natural” state.
This tension also emerges in Robert Robinson’s painting “Fly Fishing” (1933), which depicts a mechanic who, in the process of towing a car (in the background) has taken a moment to park his tow truck and throw a line in the stream, to the consternation of a policeman in the background. As the poster says, “At the height of the Great Depression, the image of a mechanic yearning to reconnect with the natural world would have resonated with viewers.”
Women are represented in the collection, albeit in the context of their time. One painting, “Tossing Trout” (1949), is by James Montgomery Flagg, the artist who drew Uncle Sam proclaiming, “I want you for the US Army.” This painting depicts a smiling woman in a headscarf happily twirling a fish in a pan (the fish flies instead of fly-fishing). The painting reinforces the sexist tropes of the time: she cooks, is happy about it, and even wears lipstick in the woods.
There are other paintings of jungle scenes: fisherman and stream painted in soothing greens and blues. I found myself drawn not only to the fishing depicted, but to what the paintings suggested about the people: the artist and the subjects.
The next room is dedicated to Joan and Lee Wulff, “basically royalty,” as Bob says. Google Joan and Lee Wulff and later will show 608,000 results. Here they just get an inadequate paragraph. The Wulffs personified brilliance in fishing. A looping short film shows Lee Wulff throwing three fish in a cast. (Ask Bob how the hell he did it.)
Lee invented the fly fishing vest and the catch and release concept. An exhibit shows tiny flies that Lee tied, calling for dexterity not found in mere mortals. In 1991, Lee sadly died of a heart attack at the age of 86, while piloting his plane. Joan lives, at 96, in New York’s upper Beaverkill Valley, still teaching fly fishing. He has taught so many for so long, that one observer points out that there is a little Joan Wulff among the casts of thousands on streams around the world. In the film loop, she is depicted casually curling into a fish, making a challenging move look effortless. She still holds records for distance, made when she competed in competitions only against men, and for accuracy in casting. A professional at the museum described Joan this way: “She’s bad.”
To understand what was on display at the museum, I spoke to Kirsti Scutt Edwards, Collections Manager. (Full disclosure: Kirsti is a neighbor and friend.) As she showed me the many boxes and shelves of material that had arrived over the years, I got a sense of the enormous scope of her work. For example, the museum houses hundreds of books related to fishing, the oldest of which dates back to 1597.
He showed me fascinating Casimir Naleway sketchbooks, which had arrived as part of a large collection. Naleway filled sketchbooks, usually one sketch a day, sometimes with detailed explanations. These fly sketches are painstakingly detailed, sometimes in black and white, sometimes in color, and the explanations are precisely expressed without a word crossed out over hundreds of pages. The entries suggest a highly organized and disciplined mind, a person who took great satisfaction in detailing flies for the event itself, without thought of publication. But the museum knows little about him. He is believed to have worked in the Chicago steel mills and kept notebooks from the 1940s to the 1970s. (So: challenge to readers: Who is Casimir Naleway? My Google search turned up a Casimir Casey Naleway (maybe?), but nothing else. Note: The work of the mysterious Mr. Naleway is not showing now, but who knows the future?)
Kirsti’s days aren’t all spent hunting down mysterious illustrators. Only 5 to 10 percent of the collection, he estimates, is on display. The museum constantly receives donated private collections, which she catalogs so future museum workers can find objects and consider them for exhibits. He is also part of the team that determines which artifacts are part of an exhibition, the Joan and Lee Wulff exhibition being an excellent recent example. Sometimes a piece is too big and just doesn’t fit well with the other pieces shown. For this particular exhibit, the museum had far more artifacts than could be displayed.
So here are some thoughts. Do you need to know or even really care about fly fishing to appreciate this museum? Surprisingly, no – I wasn’t that drawn to the intricacies of flies and fishing techniques. I’m sure anglers would find the displays fascinating on another level, which I couldn’t appreciate. I was more attracted to people who were passionate about sports. There is beauty in lives lived as the Wulffs did, immersed and excelling in what for them was a vocation. Also, the art shown is beautiful in itself and gives insight into the story.
My recommendation: be a tourist. Go to the museum when it opens, maybe a Thursday. Pet the cute dog at the door. Talk to Bob. (He’s got a big name tag that says Bob, and he could fill in as Santa in a pinch.) Take a guided tour, if it’s not busy. And then treat yourself to lunch somewhere and reflect on the wonders you’ve seen.