Maine’s bicentennial in 2020 provides the opportunity to remind people that all history is local and the story of America is told through the stories of its people, says Jon Parrish Peede, chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Peede, a Mississippian with a background in literature, will give a public talk about the “the role and purpose” of historical celebrations at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Maine Historical Society in Portland. During a two-day trip to Maine, he’ll also preview an N.C. Wyeth exhibition at the Portland Museum of Art, tour the Wabanaki-themed bicentennial exhibition “Holding Up the Sky” at Maine Historical and visit exhibitions at the Maine State Museum in Augusta about women’s suffrage and Maine’s Jewish communities.

Jon Parrish Peede, chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, will be in Maine this week to talk about the bicentennial. Image courtesy of NEH

All of those exhibitions tell uniquely local stories, and all relate to the national culture and inform a larger conversation about the development of a nation, Peede said.

“I like to go to states to start a conversation about how much of the nation’s culture is properly told in local stories,” Peede said in a phone interview. “To talk about the founding of the nation, you have to talk about the founding of Maine.”

Both the nation and state are on Peede’s mind these days. Maine will be the fourth state celebrating a bicentennial he will have visited since he began his chairmanship in 2018. Mississippi, Illinois, Alabama are the others – he also visited Nebraska for its 150th celebration – all leading up to 2026 and the 250th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

There’s a word for that: semiquincentennial.

A new NEH initiative, “A More Perfect Union,” funds projects across the country that reflect on American history and civil education in preparation for the nation’s 250th birthday. This past summer, NEH funded two projects in Maine focused on the state’s bicentennial in 2020.

The University of Maine at Augusta received $100,000 for “Maine’s Midcentury Moment: A Bicentennial Celebration,” which involves 16 humanities discussions across Maine exploring the artistic and literary interpretations of Maine’s identity in the mid-2oth century. The Maine Humanities Council received $110,000 for “2020: Bicentennial Vision for Maine Past, Present, and Future,” exploring how the factors that shaped Maine in 1820 affect Maine today, including economic, religious and geographic differences, the role of slavery, the fate of the Wabanaki people and the formation of a border with Canada.

The informal kickoff of the Maine Humanities Council’s bicentennial programming begins with a daylong symposium Oct. 19 at the Riverton Community Center in Portland that poses the question “How should life be?” Hayden Anderson, the council’s executive director, said the humanities council will be a resource for a range of discussions with people and organizations across Maine focusing on four bicentennial themes: many Maines, migration and borders, race and ethnicity, and Wabanaki voices.

The council will present its programs in libraries and historical societies, and also recovery centers, health care facilities, correctional institutions, veterans organizations and other places, Anderson said.

“As we’ve talked with communities and organizations around the state over the past several months, we’ve heard lots of excitement about bicentennial celebrations – fireworks and parades and community suppers, etc.,” he said. “We’ve also sensed a hunger in lots of communities to explore and discuss the complicated, nuanced, sometimes painful parts of Maine’s history. Community organizations want to engage seriously with these issues, but it’s not easy to find an entry point or to know how to start the conversations.”

The bicentennial presents an opportunity for Mainers to come together to envision how life here should be, he said, but bicentennials are complicated. “Can you have a parade celebrating 200 years of statehood and simultaneously hold the difficult, complicated, painful parts of the history that come along with those 200 years? We believe you can, but it’s probably not for the faint of heart,” he said. “Our hope is that communities will be willing to grapple with all the history – even the tough parts.”

This Thursday, U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-1st District, will accompany Peede to a grants workshop at the University of Southern Maine and a tour of the PMA. Pingree welcomes the chance to introduce Peede to the arts and culture in Maine. His predecessor, William D. Adams, knew Maine well – he lives here and was president of Colby College before joining the NEH as an appointee of President Barack Obama. Peede was appointed by President Trump.

“It never hurts to have a hometown chair of the NEH, but part of why we have asked him to come and visit is to see what a wonderful state we are so he gets a sense of what we have been able to do with the funding we have received from the NEH. It’s a chance for him to see where the funding goes and how well we use the money we receive from the federal government,” she said.

Pingree sits on the House Appropriations Committee, serving on the subcommittee that appropriates funds for the NEH. In the last five years, the NEH has awarded 41 grants in Maine, totaling $8 million. Of that, the Maine Humanities Council received $5.1 million.

NEH money has supported all the cultural institutions Peede will visit, and many of the exhibitions that he will see. The just-closed PMA exhibition about Haystack Mountain School of Crafts benefited from a $110,000 NEH grant, and the PMA received $400,000 in 2015 to reinstall its collection of fine and decorative arts.

Despite the politics of Washington and efforts of the Trump administration to cut funding to the NEH and the National Endowment for the Arts, Pingree said Democrats and Republicans have found consensus on arts and humanities funding. “That’s because members of Congress understand the economic role the arts play in their states,” she said.

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