The relief print “The Meeting House 2: All Present, 2020” by Daniel Minter is on view at Maine Historical Society. The print highlights the history of the abolitionist movement in Maine. Courtesy of Maine Historical Society

The Maine Historical Society issued a statement last year after the death of George Floyd condemning his killing and challenging the community to confront its own racist past.

“Our collections reveal that Maine is part of the story that created structures of inequality,” executive director Steve Bromage wrote at the time. “Maine, and the land that Maine Historical Society occupies, was the first region in North America where a permanent European settlement was founded. Since that time, the foundations of white privilege have created a system built on colonialism, racism, and a slave economy that helped fuel Maine’s hallmark industries like shipbuilding, trade, and manufacturing.”

Bromage pledged that Maine Historical would help the community confront issues of racism. One year later, the historical society museum has opened up its collections and tapped the wisdom of experts in the community to mount the exhibition “Begin Again: Reckoning with Intolerance in Maine” that explores the roots of racism in Maine and the country, both how they came to be and why they have lasted 500 years – and how they directly relate to the upheaval the country is experiencing now. The exhibition takes its name from a line in the James Baldwin novel, “Just Above My Head.”

On view until Dec. 31, the exhibition also includes a series of online panel discussions about topics raised in the exhibition. At 6 p.m. Thursday, anthropologist Andrea Louise, who is also founding director of the Asian Pacific American Studies Program at Michigan State University, will lead a discussion about Toy Len Goon, a Chinese immigrant who became Maine’s Mother of the Year in 1952 and whose story is represented in the exhibition.

“Begin Again” includes sugar bowls throughout the exhibition as a reminder the price of sugar to the developing country was the cost of slavery that made it possible. This sugar bowl, from 1830s England, was excavated in Portland in 2008. Courtesy of Maine Historical Society

The premise of “Begin Again” is simple: Systematic racism that benefits some people is detrimental to others, and the roots of systematic racism go beyond the establishment of the country or the state of Maine, and begin with a decree by the Pope in 1493 – the year after Christopher Columbus landed his sailboat in the Americas – in which the Pope asserted the right to colonize the Americas and enslave its inhabitants.

And that’s precisely what happened. Europeans came, conquered and enslaved. Maine Historical uses items from its collection and others borrowed to tell the story of colonization in Maine. In an unusual twist, visitors get to choose how they want to experience the exhibition: from the perspective of privilege or the perspective un-privilege. There are two paths to follow. One path leads to a life of wealth, comfort and security, the other a life of economic hardship, discomfort and fear. The paths are divided by a large, red cloth that represents the blood that Maine was founded on, as well as the blood that binds people together.

“And that is what this exhibition is trying to do, to make us think about our humanity and make us think about how we can take all the knowledge about Maine’s past and create a new way forward,” said Tilly Laskey, curator at Maine Historical. She worked with a curatorial team that included members of the community: author and scholar Anne Gass, attorney Krystal Williams, and educator Darren Ranco. In addition, a network of 16 advisers across the state offered input.

Both paths begin with Maine Historical’s copy of the Declaration of Independence and its ideals of equality, that all men are created equal and all people have the right to pursue life, liberty and happiness. Maine Historical owns one of 26 surviving copies of the declaration that were printed in Philadelphia in 1776 for distribution to the states. Printer John Dunlap made about 200 copies of the document; Maine Historical displays its copy every few years.

From there, the paths divide. The path of privilege includes examples of land sales, property deeds, and treaties between settlers and the original inhabitants, and material objects like sugar bowls, a baby’s christening gown and a Ku Klux Klan robe, all indicators of the wealth and power that came at the expense of others. The exhibition traces how land passed from generation to generation, staying within families.

The path of non-privilege includes a map of the United States from 1755 showing a relatively developed Eastern seaboard with vast tracts of unknown lands out west with “extensive meadows,” a letter from Thomas Jefferson urging the exploitation of those lands and the people who occupied it, as well as slave shackles brought home to Maine from a Civil War regiment. There is a section on Malaga Island in Phippsburg, where a community of mixed-race people were removed to make way for tourism, as well as information about the tarring and feathering of two University of Maine students from Massachusetts in 1919.

There are stories of resistance, as well. There’s pink hat from the Women’s March in Washington, D.C., buttons from the fight for the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, and a display of pearls and dress hat from Margaret Chase Smith and her run for the presidency.

Portland artist Daniel Minter is showing a relief print, “The Meeting House 2: All Present, 2020,” which highlights the work of the Underground Railroad and abolitionist movement in New England. Maine Historical commissioned Penobscot artist Jennifer Neptune to make a new piece for the exhibition, and she came up with a wool “blanket coat,” made with the kind of material that traders used to negotiate with Indigenous people.

There’s also a section dedicated to the Maine Historical Society itself, and the white men who founded it. That raises the point that history is told from the perspective of the victors. With “Begin Again,” Maine Historical begins to tell Maine history from all sides.

“Everything you see in this exhibition is a narrative you might not have thought about before,” Laskey said.


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