A grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities will help the Maine Historical Society preserve its collection, which includes books, newspapers, photographs, land records and approximately 20,000 artifacts, including paintings and 3,000 pieces of clothing. Contributed / Maine Historical Society

PORTLAND — Next year is a big one for the Maine Historical Society.

The museum and research center celebrate its bicentennial in 2022 and also will be able to expand its capacity to more safely and securely store significant and valuable collections.

A $500,000 grant will help the Maine Historical preserve its growing collection of books, architectural drawings, maps, newspapers, photographs and manuscripts, some dating back to the 1600s, as well as close to 20,000 artifacts ranging from textiles, costumes, furniture, paintings, tools and art, Executive Director Steve Bromage said.

“We have been collecting for 200 years,” Bromage said. “This helps us be able to collect for the next century.”

The National Endowment for the Humanities challenge grant, which requires the historical society to raise $1.5 million on its own, will be used for “compact storage” at its 35,000-square-foot climate-controlled building on Riverside Street. The storage system is installed on racks so it eliminates the need for aisles and frees up more floor space for storage, said Jamie Rice, director of collections and research.

“It allows us to increase the amount of material we can store in one space,” Rice said. “It is better suited for the types of storage needs we have.”


The Riverside facility is temperature and humidity controlled, which better preserves some of the older, more fragile pieces of the collection.

A $1.5 million fundraising plan is expected to be announced later this year.

One of the rarest objects in the Maine Historical Society collection is a John Dunlap print of the Declaration of Independence. Collections of Maine Historical Society, courtesy of MaineMemory.net, item #34722

The historical society’s headquarters on Congress Street, Bromage said, will continue to house the pieces of the collection that are most requested, as well as the rarest of the lot, such as an original John Dunlap print of the Declaration of Independence. Bromage said it is one of the 26 such copies that are known to exist today. In 2000, a Dunlap copy sold for more than $8 million.

One of Maine Historical’s oldest pieces is a 1492 letter written by Spain’s King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. It also has letters written by Benedict Arnold during his 1775 march to Quebec.

Maine Historical Society’s photograph collection comprises 2,000 of the earliest images of Maine from the 1840s and 1850s and 19,000 glass plate negatives from the Portland Daily Press/Portland Press Herald archive.

Rice said another highlight of Maine Historical Society’s collection is its numerous handwritten land records from the 1700s and 1800s that spell out how land was distributed. An volunteer effort is underway to help Maine Historical transcribe and digitize those records.


Rice is also proud of the clothing and costume collection, which includes 3,000 items from the 1700s to mid-1990s and was recently showcased in an online exhibit.

Bromage said he doesn’t have a favorite piece of the historical society’s collection because all, in their own way, “tell the story of Maine people.”

Prior to securing the Riverside Street facility in 2015, storage of the collection had expanded to “every corner of the campus and in lots of space that wasn’t the right conditions,” Bromage said.

“It has been transformative for the organization. I look back and I can’t imagine how we survived or where we would be without it,” he said.

A letter signed by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella is one of the oldest pieces in the collection. Collections of Maine Historical Society, courtesy of MaineMemory.net, item #16845

About 25% of the Maine Historical’s museum collection and 10% of its library materials are now stored at the Riverside Street building, and when the compact storage system is in place, more will be added in phases, Rice said.

“Popular items are likely to stay at Congress Street because it keeps us from having to transport, although sometimes size might determine what moves to Riverside. It’s a carefully crafted plan based on frequency of use, size and space needed to properly store,” she said.

Right now, Rice said, a mix of library, archival and museum collections are stored at Riverside, including more than 400 boxes of Bangor Theological Seminary archives documenting the 200-year history of the seminary.

“Our ability to archive this important collection speaks to the importance of a facility like Riverside, where we have the space to process and store a collection of this size,” she said.

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