As director of the fourth oldest historical society in the state, founded in 1888, I can’t claim that 2020 is the most disruptive year in our lengthy history, but it certainly must be in the top 10. Despite that, it’s also been one of the most instructive.

Along with many other Maine businesses and organizations, Pejepscot History Center – located in Brunswick and owner of the Joshua L. Chamberlain Museum and the Skolfield-Whittier House – grappled this spring with balancing our public-facing mission and a pandemic. Would we fully shut down for the season or the year, or would we adapt and partially open up?

As soon as we closed our doors in March, staff and board members began to discuss that question. By late May we had all agreed: We would open our facilities as of July 7, but for private appointments only, and in small family groups, of course adhering to all state guidelines.

Granted, several advantages made the decision-making easier. We received a Paycheck Protection Program loan in April, allowing us to retain staff and free up funds for other expenses. We benefit from diverse revenue streams –two rental lots, investment reserves, long-standing fundraising mechanisms. We have an enthusiastic support network of volunteers, members and supporters. Whatever we decided, we knew that one aberrant season would not sink us.

This realization was freeing – and propelled us forward. We instituted an online submission form for customized private tours that captured the required contact tracing information, made scheduling easier and allowed us to implement a new year-round tour option that will boost annual admission revenue.

People eager for a personalized, meaningful experience shared their thanks: “I wanted to let you know how wonderful our tour was today. Our docent was incredible. It was a real treat for my father who is a Civil War buff, and my kids even walked away with a few extra nuggets of knowledge. I really appreciate the effort your organization has gone through to continue to share the house and its contents during a pandemic.”


We also moved our monthly programming series online, attracting a larger geographic spread and more diverse array of attendees than our in-person programs. Acknowledging the profound and seismic shifts wrought by the Black Lives Matter movement and vocal pushback to racism of all kinds, we held programs (and plan more) addressing how these issues force us to think differently about our collections and the kinds of stories we tell.

We kicked major outdoor projects into high gear. Our three-year Chamberlain Museum exterior restoration work is now largely complete; new gardens grace the visitor entrance. Two volunteers resided an unsightly rear extension at our headquarters. Thanks to a dynamic garden committee and local business donations, we made substantial progress toward revitalizing the Skolfield-Whittier House’s backyard into a community garden and activity space.

Without question, this year has wrought horrors. We mourn the hundreds of thousands who have lost their lives to COVID-19 or, like George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others, to a hateful, violent thread of humanity. We would not have wished this year on anyone, and those lost lives are infinitely more important than any historical society or museum’s struggles.

Nevertheless, Maine’s cultural institutions have an important role to play in a time of so much discontent. We collect and tell the stories of our communities; we seek to provide our visitors with new perspectives. Our industry association, Maine Archives and Museums, took a leadership role early on, hosting Zoom sessions on re-opening, focusing its annual fall conference on making collections more “active” to address contemporary issues, and planning a series of anti-racism workshops for 2021. (Full disclosure: I am a member of the association’s Board of Trustees.)

Choose your own metaphor for taking these progressive steps – silver linings, glass-half-full approaches, making lemonade out of lemons. While there is a darker side to all those images, there really is only one choice for our industry – just as for society as a whole. Keep moving forward and stay open to the possibilities.

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