Maritime museum merger still smooth one year later

Posted Oct. 02, 2011, at 8:38 p.m.

BATH, Maine — In a yellow folder inside a gray filing cabinet in the climate-controlled basement of Maine Maritime Museum is a colorful brochure sheathed in clear archival film.

Among the hundreds of items given to the Bath-based museum last year by the now-defunct Portland Harbor Museum, the brochure is Senior Curator Nathan Lipfert’s favorite. In a collection that ranges from fine art to a hefty brass cannon, that’s saying something.

The 1863 brochure — vivid and undamaged despite its century-and-a-half age — advertises the voyage of a three-mast clipper called the Snow Squall. Built in South Portland in 1951, the cargo ship had traveled the world delivering valuable cargo and passengers. The voyage described in the brochure, however, didn’t go so well.

“Anybody who was attracted by that advertisement turned out wishing they never saw it,” said Lipfert.

The Snow Squall was damaged rounding the notoriously treacherous Cape Horn at the southern tip of South America, but managed to limp to the Falkland Islands, where it was abandoned. Artifacts from the wrecked ship are also among the items donated by the Portland Harbor Museum last year.

According to Amy Lent, executive director of Maine Maritime Museum, the absorption of the Portland institution’s collection accomplished two crucial goals: ensuring that the artifacts from Portland would be protected in perpetuity and broadening Maine Maritime Museum’s presence in Portland.

“You’ve got to give a lot of credit for the success of this merger to their board,” said Lent of the Portland museum. “They were really far-sighted.”

The Portland Harbor Museum was founded in 1987 on the Southern Maine Community College campus in South Portland. The museum relocated to a rented space just off Congress Street in Portland in 2009. By then, according to Mark Thompson, the museum’s former director, the institution was on tenuous financial footing so he began a conversation with Lent.

“We were on the verge of losing our physical location,” said Thompson, who was the museum’s lone employee in the end. “From my standpoint, Maine Maritime Museum stepped up when we needed them to and essentially saved Portland Harbor Museum and its mission. I’m certainly grateful for the courage that it took for them to do that.”

The Bath museum took most of the Portland museum’s several hundred artifacts in June 2010 and agreed to increase its presence in Portland. The two institutions raised $100,000 to pay for the merger, which paid for the extensive cataloguing and database work necessary to assess the Portland museum’s collection.

“One of the primary aims of the merger was for people in Portland not to lose anything but to gain something,” said Thompson, who is now the director of the Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum in Maryland. As part of that agreement, Maine Maritime Museum, which attracts approximately 45,000 visitors per year, is preparing a first-of-its-kind two-site exhibit in December that will be seen at both its Bath location and at the Portland Public Library.

According to Lent, spreading into Portland is something Maine Maritime Museum has been trying to do for years anyway. Though it has always focused on the whole of Maine’s maritime history, the museum has struggled to attract patrons, members and donors from other regions of the state. That will help the institution’s long-term mission, which isn’t just remembering the past, but promoting Maine’s maritime future.

“If the maritime industries went away, the whole culture of Maine would change,” said Lent. “We’re fortunate to live in a place where maritime history is still happening. We want to make sure that is always a part of what Maine is about.”

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