SEARSPORT, Maine — It took a lot of rearranging, rethinking and some upgrades, but for the third decade in a row, Penobscot Marine Museum received accreditation from the American Association of Museums — the highest recognition offered to museums.
About 4 percent of all museums in the nation receive this accreditation.
“It’s a big, big deal for us,” said the museum’s executive director, Niles Parker. “It felt grueling at the time. In the end, the process is worth it. It forces you to spend the time to improve the organization.”
Parker said he and his co-workers took three years to go through the process, which accredits the museum for 10 years. The AAM wanted to know, among other things, whether the museum’s collections were insured, protected by alarms and well taken care of, according to Parker. He said the museum’s bylaws and policies also were examined and updated.
Through the process, the AAM reassured the museum that its programming is strong.
“I think the marine museum is a cultural anchor for this region. Our education and programming became front and center — that is where we’ve really succeeded,” Parker said.
Since its last accreditation process, the museum had added an after-school program used in nine schools in towns including Searsport, Northport, Belfast, Frankfort and Swanville. It is expected to expand this fall into Washington and Hancock counties.
“Our collection speaks to the whole Penobscot Bay area and Down East. We’re trying to expand our reach,” Parker said.
The museum’s campus consists of about 12 buildings — if you don’t count all the barns — and is open year-round, although it is most bustling in the summer when all of the buildings are open.
In one building, children can explore lobster traps and buoys and meet “Iron Claw the lobster,” a live lobster that crawls about in a clear tank in the room with its starfish, crab, urchin and mussel friends.
“I like that we’re teaching, not just displaying,” said museum worker Betty Fraser, who also works in a nearby school.
At the Capt. Jeremiah Merithew House, up the hill from the lab, visitors may be greeted by Barbara Perry, who lives in Searsport and has worked at the museum for 14 years. “If I didn’t like it, I wouldn’t keep coming back,” she said frankly.
On the first floor visitors can gawk at taxidermy seabirds and hundreds of black-and-white pictures of master mariners with beards and mustaches of all varieties. Some captains posed while smoking pipes, while others held top hats.
On the upper floors are boat models and paintings, and some share room with whale-tooth engravings and ice-harvesting tools.
“Everyone who comes here is always surprised there is so much. They never expect such a large campus. I’ve never had a visitor leave unsatisfied,” Perry said. “The area is fortunate to have something of this caliber.”