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SEARSPORT, Maine — This summer, the interpreters at the Penobscot Marine Museum in Searsport are taking it to the streets.
Rather than opening up the buildings to the public as they would usually do, staff and volunteers will welcome visitors to participate in their new guided walking tour series. The pivot happened because of the coronavirus pandemic, but there’s a silver lining, according to museum employees. Tour groups will be small, mostly comprising a single household, and participants will really be able to dive deeply into the area’s maritime history as they wander through the museum’s graceful, 19th century campus.
“This is a crazy summer, but it’s kind of a unique opportunity,” Jeana Ganskop, the education director, said.
In midcoast Maine, museums like this one often serve as community anchors and magnets for tourists and other visitors during the busy summer season. The pandemic, which caused many to close down for a period of time or open up much later than they normally would, has been a challenge. Still, area museums are figuring out ways that visitors can stay safe and have fun while learning about maritime history, antique cars and planes or even how to sail.
In Searsport, visitors can take the standard tour exploring the history of Maine through specific stories relating to Searsport and Penobscot Bay, or a special themed tour. On a recent day, longtime volunteer interpreter Faith Garrold of Searsport explained the history of the buildings that make up the campus. She said that one of the museum’s “mansions” was built by Miles Fowler, a sea captain who never did spend much time there, but not because he was lost at sea.
“By the time it was finished, he was living in Bangor with another woman and had another child,” Garrold said.
She also stopped by the boat barns to show visitors birchbark canoes, vintage lobster boats and E.B. White’s sailing dinghy.
At the Owls Head Transportation Museum, figuring out how to successfully open up felt critical. Usually, the museum grounds are hopping during the summer season as huge crowds of people come in for the air and car shows. This summer, things are different.
“We wanted to reopen,” Sophie Gabrion, the communications manager at the museum, said. “Midcoast can be fairly dull, if you don’t have places to go. We wanted to be supportive of all the bed and breakfasts in the area that want to send folks to do something.”
After about a three-month hiatus, the museum opened its doors in mid-June. Staff members worked to reformat the exhibitions into a one-way path, in order to comply with state guidelines, Gabrion said. Even after making some changes, visitors can check out 45,000 square feet of exhibit space, six galleries and an outdoor courtyard.
“Our museum is a bunch of massive rooms with planes and cars — it’s a little different than a one-way path through an art gallery,” she said, adding that for her, moving the vehicles to create the one-way path was a pleasure. “I’m an extrovert. After three months at home, I would have come in to move dominos around.”
The museum also changed its schedule. Instead of being open every day, it is now open Wednesday through Sunday, for two sessions a day. A total of 45 people can come in during each session, and everyone is required to wear face masks as they enter the building and comply with social distancing with household groups. The maintenance staff works to sanitize the facility three times a day, and the ticket prices have been slightly reduced because visitors are not able to access as much square footage as they previously did.
“We’re making sure we can maintain that safety component while making sure people still have a positive experience,” Gabrion said.
Down the coast in Rockland, Captain Jim Sharp of the Sail, Power and Steam Museum was practically fizzing last week after a belated but special opening day. About half a dozen guests donned face masks before checking out the museum, which features an eclectic collection of marine artifacts, boats, engines and sails. As well, the museum’s free MidCoast Sailing Center held its first day. Classes had not yet filled up, he said.
“I’m just having so much fun putting all this together and seeing the kids respond,” Sharp, 87, said. “I’ve been dreaming of this all winter long.”
When the kids are working close together, they must wear face masks. But when they get into their boats, tiny Optimist Prams, they sail alone. They learn quickly, he said.
“We can fill those kids with a lot of knowledge. It’s so great to see them soak it up like a sponge,” he said. “It’s all part of the program. We teach them that the boats can capsize. They can right the boat, get back in it and keep on going. Once they learn that, they’re not so afraid of it.”
Even if learning to sail is not on a person’s agenda, he thinks the 11-year-old museum — which features an outside music jam every Sunday — is worth a trip. Sharp, a retired schooner captain, loves nautical history and Rockland is a great place for that. In the 19th century, Rockland was one of the busiest seaports in the country.
“So many vessels were in and out of the harbor,” he said. “We depict all of that history right in the museum.”