NEWPORT, Maine — The oversight of thousands of Newport’s artifacts seemed destined for success when the town’s historical society merged with the library and then took up joint tenancy in a gleaming new cultural center building, but five years later the agreement is causing strife and hard feelings that have spilled into the public arena.
A group of about two dozen people who have been involved in the historical society in past years say new policies being enacted in regard to the collection have barred them from decisions regarding the artifacts. The group recently bought advertisements in local weekly newspapers warning past and future donors of historical items that the items soon could be sold or otherwise disposed of.
“The Newport Historical Society no longer has control over any of these materials,” reads an advertisement printed recently in a weekly newspaper. “The Newport Historical Society questions whether the Newport Cultural Center can break prior commitments and obligations of the Newport Historical Society, but that is not yet a settled matter.”
Leigh Hallett, director of the Newport Cultural Center, said anyone claiming to be a member of the Newport Historical Society is ignoring the fact that the organization has not existed since 2006, when its board of directors decided unanimously to merge with the library, whose trustees also gave the merger unanimous approval. Furthermore, she said she has no intention of downsizing the collection unless the rightful owners of the artifacts come forward and ask for them back. Ideally, Hallett says she hopes most owners will opt to donate the items to the Newport Cultural Center to be preserved in perpetuity.
“People have been saying that we don’t care about protecting the collection anymore,” said Hallett. “Nothing could be farther from the truth. In fact, we’re more interested. This group seems to be implying that we’re doing something sneaky, and we’re not.”
Hallett, who is a board member for the Maine Archives and Museums Association, was hired by the cultural center’s board of directors in 2010, partly because of her expertise with historical items. She said her goal is to catalog all the artifacts, including identifying who owns them, so they can be made permanent parts of the collection or be given back to their owners. That’s important, she said, so the cultural center’s limited financial resources can be focused on items owned as opposed to those that were loaned. To that end, the center’s board adopted a historical collections policy that Hallett said is not unlike those of organizations ranging from small-town historical societies to the Smithsonian Institution.
“We cannot properly care for something we do not own,” she said. “We can’t afford to.”
The policy states that items can be loaned to the center for display for up to six months. Many items in the collection were loaned years or decades ago, so Hallett placed an advertisement in local newspapers last month asking anyone who wants to claim an item as theirs to contact the center by July 31.
Richard Peck, president of a group of about two dozen concerned citizens who call themselves the Newport Historical Society, said he and others fear seeing the collection broken up and that Hallett is excluding the involvement of people who have been associated with preserving the town’s history for up to 50 years.
“From the time the Newport Cultural Center opened in 2009, everything ran fairly well for about a year and a half,” said Peck. “Then Ms. Hallett came along and things have kind of gone downhill ever since. There are lots of rules and regulations that are being put into place that in our opinion do away with the senior citizens involved.”
Peck said records exist within the collection of who owns what but Hallett and others “refuse to use them.” Hallett said those records are vastly incomplete, including documentation of about 125 out of thousands of items.
“We know it’s a mess,” she said. “It’s a mess we want to fix, but there are rules we have to abide by.”
Peck said his group is interested in re-forming itself as a nonprofit organization and retaking ownership of the artifacts, but lacks the money to do so, though it is collecting dues to hire lawyers and draft incorporation papers. Peck said the group’s goal is to keep the collection at the Newport Cultural Center on Main Street while maintaining the right to make decisions about how it is overseen. As it stands now, he said, no one from his group is allowed to access the collection.
“We want to be treated fairly,” he said. “I don’t see where we should have these processes shoved down our throats.”
Hallett said part of preserving the collection is ensuring that whoever has access to it is properly trained and willing to abide by the center’s policies.
“For such a small town, creating the Newport Cultural Center was an amazing triumph,” she said. “I hate to see that lost in this kind of conflict.”
Those who think they own any of the artifacts should contact the Newport Cultural Center at 368-2193 for information.