Q & A with the Curators of BEGIN AGAIN: reckoning with intolerance in Maine

Edited by Elaine Tselikis, MHS Communications Manager

Today’s tumultuous times remind us of the ongoing work required to build a just, equitable, and inclusive nation. BEGIN AGAIN: reckoning with intolerance is Maine is a new Maine Historical Society initiative that explores Maine’s role in the national dialog on race and social justice — through a physical and online exhibition, and public programming events with diverse perspectives of scholars, historians, community leaders, and Maine citizens.

The exhibition (May 27 through December 21, 2021) is co-curated by community leaders Anne Gass, Women’s Suffrage movement historian; Darren Ranco, PhD, Associate Professor of Anthropology, University of Maine, and member of the Penobscot Nation; Krystal Williams, African-American attorney and founder of Providentia Group; and MHS’s curator Tilly Laskey. We asked the curators to share their thoughts and process on BEGIN AGAIN.

MHS: Tell us about your role and contribution as co-curator for the project.

Tilly: The role of a museum curator is one of privilege. But there are obligations attached to those privileges — to be in service to descendants of the people who created the items we caretake. For these reasons, I have developed a collaborative curatorial style, based upon the Indigenous methodologies of Respect, Reciprocity, building Relationships, and being Responsible and accountable for our work. Respect through co-curation and substantial community involvement are integral to BEGIN AGAIN: reckoning with intolerance in Maine. To provide context to the history of intolerance and inequity in Maine, we co-curators are working with 20 advisors and collaborators to narrate stories, provide accurate messages, and add to scholarship and education around this topic. Our methods cede the typical museum authority dynamic and acknowledge there are perspectives on Maine history that have been left out or subjugated over the centuries.

Darren: As a Penobscot Nation citizen and scholar, my role has been to ensure that Wabanaki experiences of intolerance, structural racism and colonialism are accurately addressed in the exhibit. I have also been excited to help craft a narrative that is inclusive of the experiences and perspectives of all.

Krystal: Well, I am neither an artist nor historian, so I focused on providing a layperson’s sensibilities to the narrative we are telling through the exhibit. Could each piece stand on its own? Was the meaning or implication of each story clear? How could we tell this marvelously and tragically complex story in a way that would invite participants to imagine a different future for us all? I would like to think that I added value to the process — but I’ll let exhibit attendees be the judge!

MHS: How did you choose to become involved as a co-curator for this initiative?

Darren: I was honored to be asked by Tilly Laskey, who has done a lot to make the Maine Historical Society a place for Indigenous people and Indigenous stories. I accepted because I have dedicated my professional life to sharing and teaching about silenced Indigenous histories and contemporary issues here in what is now called Maine.

Krystal: I was asked to participate last fall. I have moved around a lot in my life, and the older I get, the more I think about and want to find a sense of rootedness — a sense of belonging. Choosing Maine as my home in 2014 coincided with my desire to be grounded in space and time. For me, that means not only appreciating the present, but also understanding the past. This desire was heightened after George Floyd’s murder in 2020 and subsequent comments stating that systemic discrimination is not an issue in Maine. As a Black woman, my lived experience says otherwise. So, for me, participating in this exhibit was about my reckoning with my own journey through space and time as well as understanding and shining a light on how Maine has moved through time.

MHS: Why do you feel BEGIN AGAIN is important for Mainers to visit?

Tilly: BEGIN AGAIN reinforces acts of reciprocity with our visitors, who we invite to explore and discuss the deep historical roots of contemporary social justice and inequity issues in Maine.

Anne: This is such an important exhibit for Maine right now. What we’re trying to illustrate is how intolerance has shaped our state from the earliest beginnings of white settlement. Simply put, intolerance makes possible behavior that, were you to be the victim of it, would make you really angry! Or, as we can see in this exhibit, it could also cost you your life, liberty, lands, wealth, and/or ability to pursue happiness. Maine has all of that history.

It can be easy to say, “I’m not prejudiced” or “my family wasn’t even in Maine then,” and feel as if BEGIN AGAIN has nothing to say to you. But it does, really, especially if you’re a member of a community that’s white and straight, and maybe especially if you add “male” onto that, because intolerance paved a path that in some measure made life easier for you — gave you more opportunities, access to education, to inherited wealth, etc., even if you still feel you worked your fingers to the bones for everything you got. Because if your skin wasn’t white, or you worshipped a different God, or if you were a woman, it almost didn’t matter how smart you were or how hard you worked, you simply weren’t going to have the same opportunities. And, sadly, we’re still fighting these wrongs today.

I think many of us are trying really hard to understand and reflect on this, and it’s exhausting sometimes. But we can’t walk away from it. To me, BEGIN AGAIN is a piece of a larger truth and reconciliation process that we need to do in this country, to understand and admit to past wrongs and the harms they inflicted, to apologize, and to find a path forward that helps repair the damage and help us move closer to the more perfect union our US Constitution envisions.

Darren: I would like to think that we have created an exhibit that informs, shows little known experiences, and also creatively challenges the visitors to the exhibit —whatever their previous knowledge about these issues.

Krystal: First, it is important for Mainers to see and celebrate the vibrant diversity that has always existed in Maine. Too often, I hear there are no people of color in Maine. That is not true now and it was not true when Maine became a state. People of color have always been a part of Maine and Maine’s story. I am glad this exhibit is structured in a way that we can see the complex tapestry of what that looked like over time. Second, Mainers have to realize that Maine is not excluded from the atrocities that characterize the development of wealth in other states. Land dispossession, chattel slavery, sexism, unfair labor practices — these were all present in Maine and contributed to wealth creation that still exists today. Finally, this exhibit is important because our educational systems have white-washed history. This exhibit brings back the color and nuance in a manner that invites each attendee into a somatic and reflective experience — both of which are necessary to recognize each other’s humanity and move forward together.

MHS: To date, what have you learned during your participation in the project? Have you experienced surprises or unexpected discoveries? 

Anne: This has been such a terrific learning opportunity for me. I believe I’ve learned more from Tilly Laskey and my co-curators than I’ve given in return! I’ve been reflecting on all of it, but two things rise to the top. 

One is the Doctrine of Christian Discovery, which ”established a spiritual, political, and legal justification for colonization and seizure of land not inhabited by Christians.” I remember learning a little about it in school but somehow through this process the jaw-dropping hubris and enormity of it has really hit me. That Doctrine was the foundation of the land grab in Maine — and North America as a whole — that led to dispossessing Indigenous peoples from their tribal lands and justifying their genocide, as well as generations of deceit and treachery in dealings with them. What a colossal amount of destruction resulted from it. I don’t know how to make this right but we need to try. 

The other is my family’s own history in Maine. On my mom’s side my family goes back 5-6 generations, I’m not sure exactly how many, and at least three of my forebears were attorneys. My great-great grandfather was William Penn Whitehouse, Chief Justice of the Maine Supreme Court; his son (my great-grandfather) Robert Treat Whitehouse was a district and a state’s attorney; and his son, my grandfather Brooks Whitehouse was a partner in a law firm. I honestly hadn’t thought too much about them, other than feeling a vague sense of pride in their accomplishments, but through my work on this exhibit my thinking has flipped and I’ve been wondering just how their white, male privilege contributed to the wrongs we’re highlighting in BEGIN AGAIN? Misogyny, racism, heterosexuality, Christianity were all enshrined in laws created by — who else — white men like my ancestors. Ouch. 

That’s a whole other research project I plan to pursue in the near future! It isn’t that I hate them now. The point is that it isn’t fair to cherry pick your past and only remember the good things. We need to embrace and understand all of it in order to redress past wrongs, to promote healing, and to try to find a better way forward. 

MHS Receives $500,000 Grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to Support Offsite Collections Management Center

Maine Historical Society (MHS) has been awarded a $500,000 Infrastructure and Capacity Building Challenge Grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). NEH funds will enable MHS to install compact storage and consolidate collections storage from across four buildings at the offsite collections management center on Riverside Street that MHS recently developed with Portland Public Library. The facility provides climate-controlled storage that ensures the long-term preservation of critical museum and library collections and space to care for, process, and digitize collections.

Maine Historical Society’s mission is to preserve and share Maine’s story. MHS was founded in 1822 and has been collecting, preserving, and promoting research and scholarship in Maine history ever since. MHS includes the Brown Research Library, MHS Museum, Wadsworth-Longfellow House, and Maine Memory Network, its nationally recognized digital platform which empowers communities across Maine to share their collections, stories, and perspectives.

MHS collections provides the most comprehensive resource for the study of Maine and New England history in the state. Library and archival collections include unrivaled book, architectural, map, newspaper, print, and photographic collections; manuscript holdings from the 16th to the 21st centuries, and important rarities, including a copy of the Dunlap broadside of the Declaration of Independence. The museum collection includes approximately 20,000 artifacts ranging from prehistoric material to textiles, costumes, furniture, paintings, tools, industrial equipment, and decorative arts.

MHS’s largest artifact is the Wadsworth-Longfellow House (1785-6), a National Historic Landmark and boyhood home of 19th century poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. These collections, searchable via MHS’s online library and museum catalogs and with many items accessible on the Maine Memory Network, support research, scholarship, exhibitions, publications, education and public programs, and loans to other institutions.

Development of the collections management center is a critical step in MHS’s strategic effort to improve its facilities, Congress Street campus, and capacity as MHS approaches its Bicentennial in 2022 and prepares to serve Maine in its third century. Since taking occupancy in 2015, MHS has moved approximately 25% of museum and 10% of library collections to the facility—including material that was stored in overcrowded or environmentally poor conditions or space better suited to other activities. It has also enabled MHS to acquire and process large, historically-significant collections, including the Bangor Theological Seminary archive.

NEH Infrastructure and Capacity Building grants leverage federal funds to incentivize private investment in the nation’s cultural institutions. The grant to MHS was one of 30 totaling $13.9 million awarded in this cycle.

MHS seeks to encourage and support a vibrant future for Maine by providing historical context, access to information and resources, building knowledge, fostering dialog, and bringing together wide-ranging Maine perspectives and voices.

ABOUT THE NATIONAL ENDOWMENT FOR THE HUMANITIES: Created in 1965 as an independent federal agency, the National Endowment for the Humanities supports research and learning in history, literature, philosophy, and other areas of the humanities by funding selected, peer-reviewed proposals from around the nation. Additional information about the National Endowment for the Humanities and its grant programs is available at: www.neh.gov.

Maine Historical Society preserves and shares Maine’s story to enrich life in contemporary Maine. 489 CONGRESS STREET, PORTLAND, MAINE 04101 | (207) 774-1822 |MAINEHISTORY.ORG.

MHS Awarded $50,000 Grant from Leon Levy Foundation for Architecture and Landscape Architecture Initiative and Website

Maine Historical Society (MHS) is excited to announce that it has been awarded a $50,000 grant from the Leon Levy Foundation (New York City) to launch a major initiative that will care for and provide extensive public access to its signature architecture and landscape architecture collections.

The initiative will support the acquisition and processing of the professional archives of renowned Maine landscape architect Patrick Chassé and the development of a new online portal on the Maine Memory Network dedicated to celebrating Maine’s architecture and landscape design heritage. The initial phase of this work is also being supported by a legacy gift of the Maine Olmsted Alliance for Parks & Landscapes, now part of MHS.

Shelby White, founding trustee of the Leon Levy Foundation, said, “We are delighted that the Leon Levy Foundation can help conserve and make digitally available the Maine Historical Society’s exemplary collection of the state’s unique landscape and architectural heritage.”

Chassé, a Caribou native, has helped define a landscape architecture aesthetic that is quintessentially Maine—creating gardens and landscapes that blend with, complement, and subtly enhance Maine’s natural environment. His permanent archive at MHS will document all aspects of his career, including commissions in Maine, across the country, and beyond, collaboration with clients including major institutions across the country, work on some of Maine’s most iconic gardens and landscapes, and his stewardship of Maine’s landscape architecture heritage.

The Leon Levy Foundation grant will also support the first phase of development of a major new portal on the Maine Memory Network, MHS’s nationally-recognized digital platform. The portal will introduce the public to Maine’s built environment and provide a vast reference resource for architects, landscape architects, garden designers, property owners, restoration contractors, and the general public, including 7,500 architecture commission records and hundreds of landscape design survey records created by the Maine Olmsted Alliance. It will include interpretive guides prepared by Earle Shettleworth, Jr. and Patrick Chassé, and sample images for each commission. The database will be expandable and enable other institutions and private individuals to add Maine-related records and information from their collections.

House sketch, Cushing’s Island, ca. 1883, by John Calvin Stevens. Collections MHS / MMN # 6030.

MHS collections include architectural and landscape design commissions dating from 1850 through the present with strong holdings from Bangor, Lewiston, and Greater Portland. Highlights include the work of John Calvin Stevens, Frederick Tompson, John Thomas, the Coombs Firm (Harriman), Eaton Tarbell, Wadsworth-Boston, Beal DePeter and Ward, Quentin Armstrong, LC Andrew, and Gridley Barrows. This grant supports a broad initiative to expand access to and use of these collections and process recent acquisitions—including the archives of Francis Zelz, Bisson & Bisson, and Peter Munro.

MHS is seeking additional sponsorship and funding to develop and expand this initiative. For further information, contact info@mainehistory.org or call 207-774-1822.