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THE LARGEST, LOVELIEST COLLECTION of chess sets I have ever seen in half a century of gaping with astonishment at these brilliant tiny armies is in a small castle in rural Washington State. In this odd mansion, afloat on the grassy sea of a 6,000-acre estate, there is also a replica of a Romanian queen’s crown, dozens of sculptures and drawings by Auguste Rodin, an Inuit parka made from seal intestine, tiny mannequins dressed in the finest Parisian fabrics of 1946, a hunting bag made from the foot of a loon, and thousands of other riveting objects that it would take a week just to recite. To cap things off in suitably incongruous fashion, a gang of, God help me, peacocks rove the lawn outside.
Unusual? Why, yes, that is an apt word for the Maryhill Museum of Art, which also includes an outdoor sculpture garden and a rendition of Stonehenge. And there are so many paintings in its vaults, notes Curator of Exhibits Lee Musgrave, that the museum can display only 10 percent at a time. Other good words for Maryhill are fascinating, startling, remote (two hours from Portland and four from Seattle), and cheerfully absurd, for all sorts of reasons. Rodin’s statue Eve in plaster, 5¾ feet tall, stands a few yards away from an exhibit on the once legendary dancer Loie Fuller, who appears to have been about four feet tall. Along with a remarkable collection of material from American Indian peoples of the Pacific Northwest (their very names a poem: Wishxam Yakama Quinault Tlingit Makah Nootka Haida), there are equally thorough collections from every other corner of this country (Papago Paiute Pima Kiowa Pomo Hupa Hopi Zuni). There are petroglyphs from thousands of years ago and French glass art from the late 19th century. There’s a room for children to mess around in, artwise, and there’s a room housing artifacts that there’s no room to exhibit ("visible storage," in Musgrave’s deft phrase).
For all the motley fun of the exhibits, though, the most energetic is the room devoted to the museum’s founder, Samuel Hill (1857–1931). Entrepreneur, restless traveler, maker and spender of money on a Herculean scale, Hill envisioned a bustling Quaker farm community named for his wife and daughter on his 6,000 acres above the Columbia River. (Hill himself was a Quaker.) His dream failed mostly due to transportation and irrigation problems, and to the area’s severe weather (which explains why the museum is open only from mid-March to mid- November), but he left behind his mansion and a replica of Stonehenge built as a memorial for soldiers killed in World War I.
Before his death (and burial near his Stonehenge), Hill had been persuaded by his friend Loie Fuller to turn the castle into an art museum: It opened as such in 1940, crammed with Hill’s own collections and gifts from his rich acquaintances. One such friend was Queen Marie of Romania, who came to Maryhill in 1926 to dedicate the museum. "There is much more than concrete in this structure," she said. "There is a dream built into this place—a dream for today and especially for tomorrow . . . . Sometimes the things dreamers do seem incomprehensible to others, and the world wonders why dreamers do not see the way others do."
Indeed we do wonder, especially when confronted with such unexpected apparitions as Mar yhill, looming out of the wind-whipped Columbia River Gorge like a mirage; but then you step inside and find Rodin, who understood muscle and yearning better than anyone, and fanciful chess pieces carved laboriously from thorn wood, crystal, and ivory, and children’s moccasins as soft as their mothers’ skin, and a thousand other colorful representations of the creative zest of human beings. That zest is what we are about at our best, and why you emerge from Maryhill goggleeyed and joyous (and alert to peacocks).
Maryhill Museum of Art 35 Maryhill Museum Dr., Goldendale, Wash., (509) 773-3733, www.maryhillmuseum.org. Admission is $7, $2 for children 6 to 16.