Forget Baubles and Bangles — Portland’s Newest Museum Is All About the Beads

The Museum of Beadwork draws a bead on what the tiny, decorative orbs reveal about history and culture.

beadwork lightning bug by Melanie Chouinard
Lightning bug by Melanie Chouinard. Photo by Jeff Witkavitch
By Chelsea Diehl
From our September 2023 issue

Portland’s new Museum of Beadwork houses millions of tiny beads, but the museum’s focus, cofounder Heather Kahn says, is on the bigger picture: how people have used the colorful little adornments across time and across cultures. Since 2019, Kahn, who co-owns Caravan Beads, next door, has been working to open the museum with archaeologist and head curator Kristina Skillin, who studies modern and historic beads. They’ve assembled a collection that includes sculptures, tapestries, clothing, jewelry, and more, made by historic and contemporary bead workers from around the world. “We hope visitors will realize that bead work is not merely a craft,” Kahn says, “but an art form.”


Number of countries
represented by artists in the Beaded Square Project.


How many squares of six-by-six-inch beadwork were submitted for the museum’s permanent exhibition, the Beaded Square Project. Artists were asked to convey emotions from during the height of the pandemic, and the squares portray everything from masked faces to messages of hope to isolation comforts like gardens and pets.


Weight in pounds of Jan Huling’s The Gown: Affinity, a 3D-printed wedding dress covered in beads, the largest piece currently displayed in the museum. The project took the New Jersey artist a year to complete.

From left: A beaded urn. Photo by Howell, Ltd. for Caravan Beads; A grasshopper by Melanie Chouinard. Photo by Jeff Witkavitch

2.9 Billion

Number of beads, approximately, in the warehouse of Caravan Beads, Maine’s largest bead store. Between the store’s shop floor and museum, some 145 million are on display. 


Age of the oldest living artist featured in the Beaded Square Project, Pennsylvania’s Myrle Borine. The youngest artist who contributed is an 11-year-old from New Jersey.


The number of insect-themed pieces on display from the museum’s first juried competition, Wings & Stings, including tapestries with beaded butterflies, jewelry topped with beaded moths, and more.

The Museum of Beadwork is open Fridays and Saturdays. Tickets cost $15 for adults, $10 for children and seniors. 915 Forest Ave., Portland. 207-370-7457.

November 2023 cover of Down East magazine

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