SEARSPORT — More than a week after one lobsterman shot another on Matinicus Island, Betty Schopmeyer and Ben Fuller stood in the Penobscot Marine Museum’s recently refurbished Old Town Hall exhibit space.
Fuller, the museum curator, showed off photographic images from the museum’s collection of old Atlantic Fisherman magazines, which open the marine museum’s new permanent exhibit, “Gone Fishing: Maine’s Sea Fisheries.”
“This stuff is up there on the wall with pushpins, and I think it’s going to stay that way because things keep changing,” Fuller said. “It’s almost better, not any prettier, but better, to emphasize the flexibility.”
It seems allowing for some flexibility in the new exhibition is necessary, considering what has happened in Maine’s fisheries in just the last two months.
An outbreak of red tide algae in June shut down almost the entire Maine coast to clam digging. Lobster prices have tumbled, followed by the Matinicus shooting, and a few weeks later by the sinking of lobster boats in Owls Head. Last month, some Maine herring fisherman joined a federal lawsuit targeting midwater trawl fishermen.
Opening a permanent exhibit about Maine’s fisheries seems particularly relevant this summer.
“We’ve had some exhibits about fisheries, [such as a] lobster exhibit in the last four years, but nothing that really pulled things together,” said Schopmeyer, the museum’s education coordinator and grants writer. “I would say given the current state of affairs, the importance, the attention paid to it, there’s a lot of interest, and we wanted to support that.”
Renovations on the 2,500-square-foot space began last summer, when several smaller exhibits were relocated to other sections of the popular museum campus location on Route 1. The Old Town Hall was chosen for “Gone Fishing,” Schopmeyer said, because it’s the only museum building not heated or insulated.
“In the wintertime it gets really cold in here and things like oil paintings and fragile artifacts have to be moved out, because they can’t take the fluctuation in temperature,” she said. “The things in this exhibit were designed to be tough — they’re things that were used in fisheries — so they’ll be able to stay here.”
The museum worked with Orono-based designer Chez Cherry to design and construct the new space, which flows easily from one corner and niche to the next. The items on display are a mix of donations, re-appropriations and new creations.
Regardless of the serious — and occasionally violent — issues in Maine’s fisheries, the marine museum’s new exhibition is bright, colorful, and, by design, kid-friendly.
Several large model-type areas dominate the space, including a kid-size version of the helm of the Jacob Pike, a 1949 sardine carrier that the museum owns. That corner of the exhibit will include a display that will aim to demonstrate how herring were pumped up from a seine net.
“I think the sardine story is really important,” Fuller said. “We had cod fishing, which was a big deal, and then the sardine industry was the big fishery here in Maine. The canning factories were quite big. They employed thousands of people and there was hundreds of thousands of dollars of business done. If you go into Eastport or Lubec you can see all the nice homes and stuff like that. That was all sardine and herring money.”
Eventually the lobster fishing industry overtook sardines and herring, Fuller said, and the Maine crustacean is also given its due in “Gone Fishing.” The helm of a lobster boat, which was used in the museum’s lobster exhibit from four years ago, is part of this new exhibit, along with some of the tools used in lobstering. The boat was modeled after a 1950s boat that is in the museum’s collection.
“Most people have no idea what all the gear is, so it’s easy enough for us to show it,” Fuller said. “The kids seem to work the v-notcher pretty well.”
In another area of the exhibit, Fuller, Cherry and the crew constructed the fictitious Hansen’s Wharff (named for Dennis Hansen, the chief carpenter for the exhibit and the museum’s grounds and buildings supervisor) with modern fishing gear provided by Hamilton Marine founder Wayne Hamilton. There also is an engine, believed to be one of the first type of marine engines built, that was shipped to Maine in about 1893, and Fuller said, was never used.
There also is an 18-foot Grand Banks dory — youngsters will be encouraged to climb inside —– which Fuller said was donated by the museum at Connecticut’s Mystic Seaport, a winch from Bucks Harbor, schooner models, a rowing canoe used for salmon fishing and a replica boatyard.
On the walls, Fuller and his crew have mounted the work of photographers who focus on life in Maine’s fisheries in addition to the Atlantic Fisherman photographs.
Folk art lovers will get a kick out of Union artist Brian White’s plaid shirt made out of shells, which is perched on a wall near the entrance of the building.
Although the exhibit is open to the public, Fuller and his crew were still putting final touches on it in the last few weeks. He’d like to add more charts and graphs of fish catches over the years, and Fuller also plans to add information about the different species of Maine’s fisheries. Fuller is also expecting to have a monitor showing a few minutes of a new documentary film about a community-based sustainable fishery project in Port Clyde.
“Gone Fishing” is expected to be an attraction, not only for children in Maine during the tourism season, but also as a teaching method. Schopmeyer said a contract for a federally funded after-school program the museum had with the former SAD 56 — now RSU 20 — is expanding this fall to more than double the number of students.
When the program starts Sept. 21, the first learning unit will be on fisheries.
By then, lobster prices may have climbed higher, red tide blooms may have abated, and the groundfishing lawsuit may have progressed. Fuller’s goal for “Gone Fishing” is to keep up with it all.
“The nice thing about this is that we can continue to change it as the story changes,” Fuller said. ‘And as we know well, the story changes.”
For more information about the Penobscot Marine Museum, go to www.penobscotmarinemuseum.org or call 548-2529.