The Sanctity of Archives

By Steve Bromage, MHS Executive Director

You may have heard about a controversy that has emerged this week surrounding the National Archives and Records Administration: NARA, which refers to itself as the “country’s record keeper,” has been taken to task for altering historic images used to promote its exhibit celebrating the centennial of the women’s suffrage movement. Images of the 2017 Women’s March were blurred to obscure references to “Trump” and female anatomy, drawing criticism from historians, the museum field, and many others (including those who participated in the March).

You can read about the controversy in this New York Times article.

History is messy and complex (and wonderful and an incredibly important resource). This controversy strikes a chord: it raises questions about how institutions like Maine Historical Society go about our work at a time when the concepts of “facts, ” “knowledge,” and “truth” are under siege.

At MHS, our mission is to preserve and share Maine’s story. Central to our work is caring for and providing access to documents and other historical items that serve as the foundation of the historical record. We strive to provide broad access to our collections and work closely with partners throughout the state to develop exhibits, public programs, publications, and online resources that provide context for issues that Mainers are focused on today.

A core tenet articulated in our strategic plan states that MHS is “committed to rigorous scholarship, freedom of inquiry, confronting all aspects of the historical record, and advocates the use of history to support planning for the future.” We take this very seriously.

This means that we are meticulous in how we approach, think about, and present the historical record: we do not alter images, manipulate them for effect, sanitize them, or attempt to put aspects of Maine’s story in a more favorable light.

Our staff engages in constant discussion internally and with partners throughout Maine to identify topics of interest and relevance to the community, to include diverse perspectives, and to present multiple viewpoints.

There are inherent biases in all history—based on what records survive, what materials have been valued and collected, the era in which the history is written, and the background and perspective of the historian and institution. We work hard to identify, acknowledge, and address those biases.

I could cite many examples of MHS’s work in recent years that reflect these commitments: exhibitions on immigration in Maine, the paper industry, and Maine’s food culture and economy.

Our current exhibition, Holding Up the Sky, offers a case in point. As the State of Maine commemorates its Bicentennial this year, we felt that it was essential to first place 200 years of Statehood into the context of 13,000 years of Maine history. The exhibition explores the experience and leadership of the Wabanaki, Maine’s first people, who have lived here and been stewards of the place we now know as Maine for thousands of years.

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The exhibit revisits historic documents, like treaties, from the Wabanaki perspective and acknowledges that early Maine leaders, like the Longfellow family (near and dear to MHS), acted in deeply disturbing ways (e.g. by offering scalping bounties). The story is complex, tragic, moving, inspiring, and many other things. It is a story that people who care about Maine need to know, good and bad. Information, awareness, and open dialog is the foundation for moving forward together on this and every other topic of contemporary interest and concern.

I hope you’ll have the chance to visit Holding Up the Sky before it closes on February 1.

Exhibitions are one important way for the public to encounter and explore history. Each story, fact, object, label, panel, and graphic plays a role in establishing knowledge, understanding, and trust. It is essential that each is presented with honesty, accuracy, and transparency.

We are fortunate: Maine has an incredible historical community. Scholars, professors, graduate students, and local historians are dedicated to these principles, as are museums, archives, local historical societies, libraries, and many other organizations throughout the state.

These individuals and institutions are an invaluable resource and source of information. You can be confident in their vigilance and commitment to providing information that supports civic dialog.

We deeply appreciate the support of MHS members and donors who make this work possible.

Maine Historical Society Introduces New Genealogy Experience

In June, Maine Historical Society kicked off a weekly guided introduction to genealogical research: Find Your Place in History.

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On Thursday afternoons from June to October 2018, small groups gather in MHS’s renowned Brown Research Library and embark on the Find Your Place in History program from 4:00 to 5:30pm. During the program, participants explore history on all levels: from the history of their own family to artifacts that help tell the story of western civilization.

“Genealogy is one of the most popular hobbies in the United States, and many of our visitors to the Brown Research Library are genealogists doing research” says Nan Cumming, Director of Advancement and creator of the Find Your Place in History program. “But we have heard from a number of patrons that there is really no guided introduction to genealogy except reading a book or watching a couple of YouTube videos. We have the expertise, the information, and the collections here – this is certainly a gap in the market we can fill!”

During their afternoon session, Find Your Place in History participants dig into their own family story with the guidance of Maine Historical Society staff. In addition, they view artifacts from the collections of the Maine Historical Society and put on the white gloves and explore Maine Historical Society’s archives—off limits to regular visitors. After their work in the library, the participants gather in the Wadsworth-Longfellow House garden to enjoy refreshments.

“We’re delighted to kick off the Find Your Place in History program and to welcome those who have always had an interest in genealogy, but frankly didn’t know where to start!” said Cumming.

Find Your Place in History: A Maine Historical Society Genealogy Experience is offered Thursdays from June to October, from 4:00pm to 5:30pm. Check-in at the MHS Museum Store at 489 Congress Street.

This is a guided introduction to genealogical research—not for experienced genealogists. To ensure you have the most fascinating experience, bring the names and birthdates of a few relatives to your session.

Ticket Price: $75 each. There is a maximum of 6 people per tour. The deadline to register for each event is the Monday prior to the event. Available by advance registration online at mainehistory.org or by phone at 207-774-1822 ext. 216

Spite House in Rockport Maine: Garden Papers and Correspondence

By Steven Deschenes, MHS Volunteer

Garden lilies: L. testaceum, L. washingtonianum, L. humboldtii, and more – they came by the dozens from across North America, and they came to a small corner of mid-coast Maine.

Their destination? The gardens of the Spite House in Rockport, Maine.

Despite some plants having come thousands of miles their travels are not nearly as impressive as that of the Spite House itself. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1974, the Spite House owes its existence to a family dispute from the early 19th century.

When Captain Thomas McCobb returned from a long voyage at sea, he discovered that his relatives had broken his father’s will and moved into the fine house his father had built in Phippsburg. In retaliation, or “spite,” he had an even more ornate home built strikingly close to his father’s usurped house.

The house was completed in 1806. By the early 20th century the house had seen better times and, in 1925, it was bought by Mr. and Mrs. Donald D. Dodge.

Shortly after purchasing the home, Mr. Dodge arranged for it to be moved (completely intact) from Phippsburg to Deadman’s Point in Rockport. The house was braced, lifted onto a barge, and shipped 85 miles to its present location. Once safely back on dry land, two more wings were built.

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The following year, Mr. Dodge had gardens installed according to a design by the landscape architect Robert Wheelwright. Now, thanks to a recent donation to the Maine Historical Society, we know just what bloomed!

Relatives of Mr. Dodge donated his documents pertaining to the gardens of the Spite House to the Maine Historical Society. Among the papers are purchase orders, receipts, plant lists, notes on plant care and propagation, catalogs, and letters.

Looking through the correspondence with over half a dozen plant nurseries (most of which appear to no longer exist), you discover the wide variety of lilies, roses, and alpine plants ordered and planted by Mr. Dodge and his gardener, Henry B. Williams, during the 1950’s. Mr. Dodge kept carbon copies of his letters detailing their successes and failures. It’s clear that he was an avid gardener with a keen interest in learning all he could about lily propagation.

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Reviewing the papers, you’re regaled with their struggles to control a common plant disease, Botrytis, that plagued particular species, especially during wet and damp periods of weather. Controlling the local woodcock population also took precedence, as it’s assumed the gamebirds – primarily an insect eating species – rooted around in the flower beds, disturbing young seedlings and causing general havoc to the flower beds.

Here’s a passage from a letter addressed to A.D. Rothman of Strawberry Hill Nurseries, dated October 15th, 1954:

I am having a wonderful time in my garden now preparing the planting arrangements for these lilies and planning where to put them. You can be assured they will have every care possible. They are planted amongst shrubs – Azaleas, Kalmia, Rhododendron, Mahonia, Bayberry – but I have learned to give them plenty of room and I have also learned to restrict the roots of the Mahonias and Bayberries by putting in sheets of zinc to give the lilies a head start. The Kalmias and Rhododendron are no problem and the same applies to most Azaleas but some of the Azaleas do have runners. However, I am having a hard time keeping up with my woodcock shooting and getting the lilies planted too!

By all appearances, the time period covered in the collection marked one of the high points in the history of the Spite House Gardens. While under the care of Mr. Williams, the gardens underwent an extensive expansion with a lily and wildflower garden planted in the woods south of the house, installations of a rock garden, an enclosed rose garden, island gardens in the lawns surrounding the property, and the construction of a greenhouse.

All in all, the collection provides a glimpse into what it took to plan, execute, and nurture flower gardens on the coast of Maine nearly 70 years ago!