January 18, 2020
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Penobscot Marine Museum’s new virtual museum places collections online

SEARSPORT, Maine — The photographs are like a direct portal into the past.

One image captured a hundred years ago shows two young girls posed with fans as elaborate and frilly as their flowery gowns.

In another, silvery sardines fill a small fishing boat as two men work to get control over their abundant catch.

And in a third photograph, residents of the village of Wytopitlock, including a man in the process of getting barbered, stepped outside in the early 20th century to watch an itinerant photographer snap a picture of their town’s main street for posterity.

The shelves of the archive rooms at the Penobscot Marine Museum are filled with images such as these, stored on plate glass negatives and taken by such photographers as sea captains’ daughters. Now, many of the pictures are being made available to a much wider audience through a new “virtual museum,” or free online visual database.

“We have 100,000 photographs, and if no one gets to see them, what good are they?” Kevin Johnson, photo archivist at the museum, said Monday.

That’s why museum directors decided to create a museum without walls as one way of marking the nonprofit institution’s 75th year and getting more eyes to see the second-largest collection of historical photographs in Maine. Already, more than 30,000 photographs are available for perusal at the click of a mouse. A small army of volunteers and staff members were busy Monday working on tasks that include scanning more of the negatives to be included in the collection.

“All of this helps to broaden our audience,” he said.

Although the museum is considered a small, regional institution with a nautical mission, the collections of photographic negatives are expanding its range considerably. They include:

• 35,000 images from the Eastern Illustrating and Publishing Co., a Belfast-based postcard publisher. The company’s wandering photographers documented New England and upstate New York from 1909 to the 1950s.

• Photographs from the Atlantic Fisherman, the fishing industry’s most important newspaper, taken from 1919 to the 1950s.

• Photographs taken by Joanna Colcord and Ruth Montgomery, two sea captains’ daughters who documented life on sailing ships in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

“The variety of the collections we have is also interesting,” Johnson said. “Each collection has a specific viewpoint.”

He said that he has been traveling around the state with a slide show of photographs from the museum’s collections to present to audiences.

“But it’s just the very tip of the iceberg,” he said.

With the virtual museum, anyone can browse around the collections, looking for a specific town or topic. He has had interest from genealogists, teachers, writers, history buffs and even people looking for information about their old houses.

An element of the online museum he is most excited about is the potential interaction with users as they are invited and encouraged to give feedback about the photos. Perhaps the viewers know the people, boats or buildings caught on camera all those years ago.

“We want that kind of feedback,” Johnson said. “It gets people to participate.”

In fact, the museum is hoping to start a program where staffers will teach folks living in retirement communities and nursing homes about how to navigate through the virtual museum, in order to take advantage of their knowledge of Maine.

In the future, Johnson said that he hopes to get everything from the museum’s collections online, including the nonphotographic exhibits and displays.

“We’re in this digital age. All of a sudden, we have this opportunity we’ve never had before,” he said.

The museum’s virtual collections may be found at penobscotmarinemuseum.org/Search-Database-Landing.html.

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