When I was a little girl, I felt like there were people like Nancy 3. everywhere, with heads full of imaginative ideas, wearing polka-dot dresses, and singing silly songs. I don’t meet many people like that anymore. They seem to have disappeared as I grew up.
I took the ferry across the Casco Bay from Portland to meet Nancy 3. at her museum, the Umbrella Cover Museum. She has collected nearly a thousand umbrella covers- the little sleeves that slip onto a closed umbrella- sent to her by people from around the world. She’s arranged them in collections: International Umbrella Covers, Very Serious Umbrella Covers, British Umbrella Covers. There is a collection of “Sexy Umbrella Covers” in the bathroom. The museum seems childlike and whimsical, and Nancy 3. says, “It’s for adults and kids! Or, the kids in the adults. The whimsical curiosity that some people have scrunched down. I like to live with it!”
The museum, and Nancy 3. can be summed up by the museum’s mission statement:
The Umbrella Cover Museum is dedicated to the appreciated of the mundane in everyday life. It is about finding wonder and beauty in the simplest of things, and about knowing there is always a story behind the cover.
HOW DID THE UMBRELLA COVER MUSEUM COME TO BE?
I had a few umbrella covers in my house. Which, a lot of people do. They were in this bin where I threw my mittens and gloves and scarves and one day I cleaned it out and realized I had five umbrella covers. So I looked at them and thought, “Hmm. Why did I keep these? They are kind of cute, but does anyone really use them? I don’t, because they are so hard to get back on the umbrella once you take them off!” So, I started asking people, my friends, “Do you have any umbrella covers in your closet?” Most people do. In an informal survey, I’d say about 50% of people, especially women, have umbrella covers in their closet or in their drawer. And most people don’t throw them out. So, it was a phenomenon. Then, it became a research project to find out: Why people keep their umbrella cover? What happened to the umbrella? Is it the only thing people keep like this? It’s a rare commodity, actually. It’s manufactured, painstakingly made. This one I have in my hand has two types of fabrics stitched together. And yet, it’s not used. But it’s too good to throw out. It was idle curiosity, or intellectual curiosity. And people started giving me their umbrella covers! They weren’t valuable enough to keep, so I’d put them up on the wall of my kitchen with a little sticky note saying, for example, “This came from Becky Smith, salmon is her favorite color, she had duck-handled umbrellas because she is a bird watcher. The duck umbrella was left on the dock on a trip to the Bahamas, but the cover remains.” It became about the story behind the cover.
HOW HAVE UMBRELLA COVERS CHANGED YOUR LIFE?
They remind me everyday to enjoy little simple things. And not take it too seriously. Plus, it’s become an interesting international collection. I have covers from 52 countries- I just got one from St. Petersburg, Russia. It is a model for international collaboration and beauty, and diversity. Things I like to support in my personal and musical life. I play professional music, multicultural music. I play Eastern European party music, Klezmer music, and accordion international songs.
HOW DO PEOPLE RESPOND TO THE MUSEUM?
A lot of people come in and they look around and start to giggle. They love it, and they get it right away. Some people look really puzzled. Other people walk by the door and say, “Oh! It’s umbrella covers.” And walk part. Those people do not have enough curiosity. Or it scares them. I don’t understand that. And I do some eccentric things like play the accordion. Have a middle name that is a number. So, it kind of fits in with my persona. Once people realize that, they get the whole picture. People love my mission statement, that is what hooks them in, and they look with different eyes.
WHAT DO YOU FEEL LIKE RIGHT NOW, AS YOU OPEN A PACKAGE WITH A NEW COVER IN IT?
Oh, it’s thrilling! It’s exciting! It’s a journey! And adventure. What could it be? The package is squishy and filled with three umbrella covers- two black, one dark blue. One ESPRIT and one from American Tourist, which is probably from a luggage set. And look! There is a story! And they put umbrellas all over the letter! See, these are people that took time! It’s a long story, shall I read it?
Synopsis of the letter- A couple from Connecticut visited the museum last year and loved the museum. The covers included with the letter are: 1. From a “workhorse” umbrella with an automatic release button, broken from a windstorm. 2. From an ESPRIT umbrella from TJ Maxx that only lasted a month or so before breaking. 3. From a full-length umbrella purchased at a fundraiser. The women who sent in the covers said she always replaced the cover after every use- a rare bird- while her husband did not.
TELL ME ABOUT THE ACCESSION SYSTEM.
I have one of my interns accession the umbrellas. They are great at doing the accessioning, where you measure and describe the umbrella cover, put it in the notebook with a number. And then they tag it. I do have quite a few plain black covers, or even ESPRIT covers for example. And when we did the count for the Guinness World Book of Records, duplicates were not allowed. So we had to physically go through every umbrella cover- the official count was 730 umbrella covers, now about a thousand, catalogued by color and size. We were the first to create a world record in that category.
DO YOU HAVE A FAVORITE UMBRELLA COVER?
My newest ones are my favorite ones. The ones that I just get- and today, I just received a new umbrella cover! It’s from Connecticut. I don’t know the people who sent them offhand, but it’s frequently from someone who has been to the museum.
TELL ME ABOUT ONE REALLY SPECIAL STORY.
Everyday is a different special story. I have a personal story. The exhibit over here, called International Covers has a map of the world with a story and umbrella cover from around the world. This one is from Genoa, Italy, found on the Court of Miracles in Genoa. I play the accordion, piano, I sing, and also play the carillon, which is bell tower music! And I heard there was a bell tower in Genoa. So, I was looking for this bell tower and it was in a church. And everywhere I went it was a dead-end, so you couldn’t get to the church. Just parking lots and fences and corners. And instead of the bell tower, I went down this little tiny street called the Court of Miracles, and there was this umbrella cover, lying on the street.
TELL ME ABOUT YOUR DECISION TO ACCEPT YOUR ECCENTRICITY.
I do make a point not to judge. And remind myself not to. I think we all grew up with standards or levels of beauty, perfection, comparison. All of that is part of our culture. And I really try to make it less important. To have those subconscious voices in my head be more quiet. And wait. It’s really about waiting. Just don’t judge right away. If you look at someone and think, “Oh, that person is beautiful or that person is not beautiful,” you just don’t let that reign. Rain! A pun in the museum.
WHAT IS IMPORTANT TO YOU?
Spreading joy. In just about everything I do, that is my mission as a performer, and a curator and as a person.
TELL ME ABOUT A LESSON YOU ARE LEARNING IN YOUR LIFE, OR HAVE LEARNED RECENTLY?
I’d say to stay open. This museum is like that. When I first started collecting umbrella covers and had five, and then my friend Becky gave me two. It was a tiny little thing, and I had no idea that it would turn into the world’s largest collection of umbrella sleeves in a museum that I would have for 17 years.
WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE MOMENT OF AN AVERAGE DAY?
Something surprising! Like opening this envelope with three umbrella covers in it! The moment that surprises me.
For more about the Umbrella Cover Museum, click here.