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. 

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.

Holding Up The Sky logo 1 NEW

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.

2014: It’s All History Now

Thanks from MHSHappy New Year! Can we just take a minute and say Thanks?! 2014 was an incredible year for MHS, much due to all the wonderful people who visited us for public programs, listened to our podcasts, became members, researched in our library, contributed to our collections, and engaged with us in person (throughout the state) and online.

We love creating programs and exhibitions for our diverse audiences (in Maine and around the world) and hope that if you haven’t had a chance to join the MHS community, 2015 will be your year to do it. Drop us a line if there’s something of particular interest that you’d like to see us doing in the new year–we welcome your feedback!

We’ve created 7 ways to look back on all that you’ve helped us accomplish in 2014–check out these posts compiled by our staff:

Part 1: Digital Engagement & Maine Memory Network

Part 2: Education 

Part 3: Brown Research Library & Collections

Part 4: Wadsworth-Longfellow House & Garden

Part 5: Institutional Advancement

Part 6: Gallery & Exhibitions

Part 7: Public Programs

We can’t wait to make history with you in 2015!