A sign telling visitors that due to the coronavirus, Pejepscot History Center is closed to the public. Director Larissa Vigue Picard is asking that businesses with similar signs not throw them out when they reopen, but instead donate them to the history center.

BRUNSWICK — Larissa Vigue Picard walked through the quiet, emptied streets of downtown Brunswick earlier this week, and stopped in front of the many shops, restaurants and bars to snap photos of signs on their doors. 

Each sign was different. They were hand-written or typed up and printed, showcasing different fonts and colors, others included doodles or messages of hope. Some announced closures, others limited hours, and many advertised new food take-out only policies — a result of the coronavirus pandemic sweeping across the country. 

The term used by government officials and much of the community has been “unprecedented,” but to Vigue Picard, director of the Pejepscot History Center, it is history in the making. 

Pejepscot History Center, formerly the Pejepscot Historical Society, is asking individuals, families and business owners in Brunswick, Topsham and Harpswell to save items of what Vigue Picard called “material culture” and “ephemera:” The signs, the pamphlets, the letters, the personal stories, the items that represent how Mainers are dealing with isolation, social distancing and the daily life of living through the coronavirus crisis. 

Once the center reopens, it will start accepting items for a collection. 

“People aren’t thinking about this as being history because it’s happening right now, but it is. It’s immediately becoming history,” she said. “Someday people are going to want to know what’s happening. (By doing this) We’re talking to the people of the future.”

Vigue Picard is trying to prevent the lack of information she recently experienced when trying to find local accounts of the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic and came up empty handed. 

“I was shocked,” she said. “I thought maybe there would be a letter or a photograph or something, but there was nothing. I don’t want the … future curator to have that same experience.” 

She knows that right now, many people are dealing with the financial and health concerns, “and people have to deal with the crisis at hand,” but as director, it’s her job to help preserve and promote local history. Plus, showcasing that history may not be 50 or 100 years in the future. Instead, it could be next year, or five or 10 years from now on anniversaries of the pandemic. 

“So when people start taking those (signs down), don’t throw them away,” she said. “People will want to collectively look back. It’s a way of dealing with these crises, saying, ‘We experienced this together.’” 

Pejepscot History Center unveiled its new logo and slogan earlier this week at what was supposed to be its big annual meeting. The meeting was conducted remotely due to the coronavirus outbreak.

This isn’t the first time, and likely will not be the last, that museums and curators recognized the historical importance of an event as it was unfolding, and immediately tried to preserve what they could. 

After the ice storm in 2008, Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013, the Women’s March in 2016, museums and historical societies, both in Maine and around the country, began collecting and preserving the signs and other items, said Kate McBrien, an independent museum professional specializing in New England history. 

“The coronavirus pandemic is happening right now,” she said. “Generations from now, people will look back to see how we responded to a world-wide pandemic. To best collect that history means to collect it now and make people aware of the need to preserve what they have.” 

She suggested homemade signs, games or songs created to keep people at home entertained, and individual stories. The center is not accepting newspaper articles as they are now digitized and newsprint does not preserve well. 

Earle G. Shettleworth Jr., Maine’s state historian, noted that much of the information, what might have once been distributed as a flier or a pamphlet, is now circulating digitally. 

While they’re still around, he suggested printing them out to save to donate to places like Pejepscot History Center before they disappear. 

“Certainly, this is a very dramatic moment in our nation’s history,” he said, but “The history of what’s going on locally at a particular moment reflects up the chain of what’s going on statewide and nationally.”

McBrien agreed. 

“Documenting the official response is important but just as important is documenting the personal experience and impact of those official decisions,” she said.  

Pejepscot History Center officials unveiled the organization’s new name in January, and on Tuesday, what was supposed to be its big annual meeting, released the new logo and slogan: Discover your place in time. 

To Vigue Picard, that has never been more poignant. 

“It fits with this notion (that) you as an individual, right now, have a stake in this history and we want to hear from you,” she said. 

For information about donating items or to submit a personal history, contact the Pejepscot History Center at (207) 729-6606 or [email protected]

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