PORTLAND — About a year ago, the Portland Harbor Museum decided to open a special exhibition in an empty storefront on Congress Street in Portland as a trial run for moving its maritime history collection from its South Portland location.

It eventually became apparent that the temporary space at 510 Congress St. was more accessible to people than the museum’s existing home at Fort Preble, which is near Spring Point Light on the campus of Southern Maine Community College in South Portland. 

Now, Portland Harbor Museum Executive Director Mark Thompson said the board of directors has decided to move the museum’s entire collection to Portland. The museum will open to the public on Friday with seven new exhibits.

Although the new location is not a permanent home, Thompson said having a space in the city’s Arts District will allow the museum to meet an immediate goal of increasing traffic and visibility in the community – two factors that figure greatly into securing grants to keep the doors open.

“In order to survive, we need greater visitation,” Thompson said. “It factors into a lot of what you do.” 

Meanwhile, SMCC Dean of Administration Scott Beatty said the college hopes to renovate the historic brick building at Fort Preble using federal stimulus money. The building will maximize alternative energy, including solar and possibly small-scale windmills, and be used as classrooms. It will possibly even house art studios that are in increasing demand at the community college. 

“Interest in our art program has grown tremendously,” Beatty said, noting that an old seaside storage facility was converted to an arts studio last year. “We’re having a hard time keeping up.”

Beatty said the museum has been “a good neighbor” and the college understands its need to move to a more visible location. The museum move presents opportunities for both groups. “We can certainly use all the space we can get,” he said.   

The move alleviates several headaches for museum workers.

First and
foremost, there was the need to protect the museum’s collections, which
come largely from donations. That task became increasingly
difficult in South Portland, because the museum did not have enough
money to invest in necessary building upgrades.  

Portland Harbor Museum has been in the 1902 Ordnance Machine Shop of Fort Preble since 1987. However, two reports, one in 1993 and another in 2008, highlighted the building deficiencies that threatened the museum collection.

The 1993 report estimated $160,000 would only be a “bare-bones” cost to address urgent maintenance needs, many of which arise from the fact that the building directly abuts a steep hill, causing water and insect problems. The 2008 report said several portable heaters and vents were needed to keep pipes from freezing. 

Also, three small fires have have occurred over the years because of an inadequate electrical system.

“We have an obligation to protect what people have given us and have managed to do that for more than 20 years, thanks mostly to the hard work of our staff,” Thompson said. “We really felt a certain amount of urgency to leave.”

The museum has been looking for a new home for years. Thompson said the group looked at other locations in South Portland and places in Cape Elizabeth. The museum was also active in Portland’s failed Maine State Pier development talks.

Although the Congress Street location will be annually evaluated, Thompson said the museum will be able to more than double the size of its exhibitions, from 3,400 square feet to 6,900. 

The museum will use much of that space for its current show of seven exhibits, which opens to the public on Friday.

“Most of (the space) is in the exhibition area and that ‘s the way it’s supposed to be,” Thompson said. “We have a wonderful history here in Portland Harbor and want to share it with as many people as possible.” 

The exhibits include: “Good Work, Sister: Women Shipyard Workers during World War II”; “Nance Trueworthy Photographs: Faces of the Working Waterfront”; “Dean Abramson Photographs: Harbor Views”; “Vintage Postcards; A New Deal for Portland: A 1930s Vision”; “To the Islands: A Brief History of Casco Bay Lines”; and “New England’s Titanic: The Steamer Portland Disaster.” 

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or [email protected]


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