May 6, 2012

Bob Keyes: A changing of the guard of historical proportions

Steve Bromage has enough childhood memories from family trips to the Natural History Museum and Old Strubridge Village to fill a photo album or two.

click image to enlarge

Steve Bromage, the new executive director of the Maine Historical Society, has been with the society for 10 years, since 2006 as assistant director.

John Patriquin / Staff Photographer

He grew up in New Jersey, and his family had a summer place in Winthrop near Augusta. Between the weekend trips to Manhattan museums and stops along the way on the long drive up to Maine, Bromage got his fill of history and art.

With that background, it's little surprise that Bromage was recently chosen to succeed Richard D'Abate as executive director of the Maine Historical Society in Portland. Bromage, who has worked at Maine Historical for a decade, has been assistant director since 2006.

He views history not as a subject learned in school, but as an evolving series of narratives.

"History is full of stories," he said. "I see this job as an opportunity to engage in history in a meaningful way."

A trip to the Natural History Museum was a chance to hear stories about dinosaurs. The Metropolitan Museum of Art represented knights in armor. And his local museum in Morris County, N.J., featured a permanent exhibition about railroad trains.

Those weren't boring trips, but thrilling excursions. What kid doesn't love trains, dinosaurs and knights in armor?

Instead of being bored or turned off by history, Bromage felt engaged and excited. He expects Maine Historical to generate that same level of excitement for children and adults alike.

"I have spent much of the last 10 years talking about what makes a place like this go. I understand that history is participatory and a part of everyday life. I look forward to the possibilities ahead," he said.

Bromage, who lives in Cape Elizabeth with his wife and three children, did not inherit this job. He earned it after a long national search turned up no candidate more qualified and enthusiastic to lead Maine Historical into its next phase.

He studied English at the University of Richmond in Virginia, and earned a master's in American history from the University of Massaschusetts in Amherst, where he focused on 20th-century U.S. cultural history.

Bromage came to Portland because he was a good grant writer. He turned out to be not only a skilled grant writer, but also an excellent manager of the grants the society received as a result of his work.

"These were big federal grants," D'Abate said. "It was through that work that he took on more and more responsibilities throughout the organization. We quickly realized he had many talents, and we made as much use of him as we could."

In 2006, a fund-raising campaign diverted D'Abate from his day-to-day responsibilities. Bromage became assistant director.

More than any other single person at Maine Historical, Bromage was the guy most responsible for the changing perception of the museum and historical society as an engaged and interesting organization, D'Abate said.

All of the public programs came out of Bromage's office -- the exhibitions at the Congress Street space in Portland; the statewide, online collaborative museum known as the Maine Memory Network; the Maine Community Heritage Project, which helps promote the role of history in creating community awareness and identity.

Bromage's fingerprints are all over all of them, D'Abate said.

"We are understood to be a much more vibrant organization, because we stand for a more vibrant idea of the way that history is part of our lives," D'Abate said. "It's why people think we are valuable and why people want to give us funds, and why we are successful at grants and so forth.

"Our perception as a forward-thinking, progressive organization with new ideas about how to make history important in our lives is really a significant part of who we are."

Bromage will oversee an organization of 20 staff members and a budget of $1.7 million.

Among his immediate priorities is the launch of a new exhibition about the electrification of Maine, "How Electricity Came to Maine," opening June 22.

We take our electricity for granted, but it wasn't too long ago that the idea of power lines criss-crossing the state was bewildering.

The exhibition will be full of awe and wonder. It will display big turbines and explain the physical challenges faced by linemen who brought power to all reaches of Maine. It will remind old-timers that a range and refrigerator once were novel items.

Back in the day, you had to go to a special store just to buy a light bulb.

Long-term, Bromage is thinking about the historical society's next major fund-raising campaign. The society desperately needs a new building with offices and proper exhibition space.

"We are in the long-range planning process," he said. "We have to decide what kind of building we want, but at some point in the next few years, we will build a new museum building."

Bromage has many supporters in town and across the state.

This spring, Hilary Bassett, executive director of Greater Portland Landmarks, is collaborating with Bromage and his staff on a lecture series about the local landscape and historic preservation.

"One of things I have liked and enjoyed about Steve is that he is so interested in bringing a broad representation of the community together," Bassett said. "He looks at history very broadly. To include landmarks and current issues and historic preservation topics that are being worked on as we speak is really very positive."

Perhaps the greatest endorsement came from Earle G. Shettleworth Jr., the go-to guy for all things related to Maine history and director of the Maine Historic Preservation Commission in Augusta.

Shettleworth has been a member of the Maine Historical Society for almost 50 years. His hopes for the society as a vibrant, active and engaged organization came into focus under D'Abate's leadership.

He is confident that Bromage will see that vision through to fruition.

"I have every confidence that Richard's legacy is in good hands and will continue to grow and thrive," Shettleworth said. "I've always had such positive interactions with Steve, no matter what it has been, whether a broad philosophical issue to a house-keeping detail.

"He is a very bright, personable and thoughtful person, and he will do a good job." 

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or:

bkeyes@pressherald.com

Twitter: pphbkeyes

 

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