A view the birchbark canoe from the 1880s, Frederic Edwin Church’s, “Mount Katahdin from Millinocket Camp,” and a portion of Emma Hassencahl-Perley’s mural, “Wesuwe-tpelomosu,” at the entrance point to the new reinstallation and reimagining of the permanent collection at the Portland Museum of Art. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

On the second floor of the Portland Museum of Art, the view has changed.

At the top of the main stairwell is a new mural by Emma Hassencahl-Perley that depicts Wolastoqiyik women paddling a birchbark canoe, portaging and trapping food.

Look into the gallery and see such a birchbark canoe, attributed to Penobscot makers in the 1880s and on loan from the University of Maine’s Hudson Museum.

And on the far wall beyond the canoe is Frederic Edwin Church’s “Mount Katahdin from Millinocket Camp,” which depicts a lone paddler on the lake. This 1895 painting was previously displayed in the museum but is accompanied by a new blurb from James Eric Francis Sr., director of cultural and historic preservation for the Penobscot Nation.

These layers are the product of “Passages,” a major reinstallation of the museum’s permanent collection. An advisory committee shaped the project around three major themes – Maine’s role in transatlantic slavery, environmental change and the ongoing presence of Wabanaki and other Indigenous nations throughout North America. The resulting exhibit includes items that visitors will see for the first time and familiar works that will be framed in new ways.

“Sometimes we are inclined to think of museums as static places of permanence,” said Ramey Mize, assistant curator of American art. “They hold art and other materials of cultural heritage in the public trust, and they steward it for future generations, but I think there’s a sense that the presentation of work stands still, how it was installed however many years ago will remain the same. But moving forward in our present moment, there is a huge expectation that we bring our collections alive and engage them with contemporary questions and issues and concerns.”


Ramey Mize, assistant curator of American art, looks up at a portrait of Captain Joseph McLellan Jr., attributed to the artist Johann Baptist Hirschmann at the Portland Museum of Art. The portrait now has a passage that goes with it written by a descendant of McLellan who grapples with the history of her ancestors and their fortune made in the shipping industry and that industry’s ties to slavery and the slave trade. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

The PMA has more than 19,000 items in its permanent collection. Only 1 to 2 percent of that is on view at any given time. The museum last overhauled its permanent collection in 2017, but this project was different from the beginning. The staff had been inviting outside collaboration on temporary exhibits – such as the celebration of artist David Driskell’s work in 2021, which included programming by Indigo Arts Alliance – and wanted to bring that model to bear on the rest of the museum.

“It’s so important for museums to bring community members into the work of the museum,” said Shalini Le Gall, chief curator. “The Portland Museum of Art has a wonderful track record of doing that with its temporary exhibitions, but all of us felt a little bit of sadness when those exhibitions would come down. We realize there are so many people who were involved in mounting this and sharing this and interpreting this, and the show is coming down. With a permanent collection, you are creating a living installation. It’s something that can go on, something that can be tweaked, something that can be refreshed over time.”

So the PMA applied for and received a $75,000 grant from the Terra Foundation for American Art, which was encouraging museums to reexamine their permanent collections in ways that would broaden understanding of artistic and cultural history in the United States. The museum convened an advisory committee with partners from Akomawt Educational Initiative, Atlantic Black Box, Indigo Arts Alliance, Gulf of Maine Research Institute and Portland Public Schools.

Those advisers identified the themes for the reinstallation and met monthly from March to November. The staff spent the winter putting those ideas into practice and interviewing more than 30 people whose words have become wall text and audio stops in the exhibit. Overall, the project involved more than 50 individuals from outside the museum.

“It’s just so many different voices, and that’s the beauty of it,” said Christian Adame, director of learning and community collaboration. “It shows a deeper commitment to bringing various forms of knowledge beyond an artist or a textbook. It’s more, how do these objects resonate with us now?”

Adame said he hopes those different voices also help visitors feel validated and engaged in the museum.


“There’s no wrong way to look at art,” said Adame. “You don’t have to know anything about art to have an opinion about it.”

“Dark Harbor Fisherman,” by Newell Convers Wyeth at the Portland Museum of Art is accompanied with new text by Joseph Robbins, a Penobscot chef, about the history of the fish scale basket seen in the photo. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

The advisers included endawnis Spears, who founded Akomawt Educational Initiative with Chris Newell, the former executive director of the Abbe Museum in Bar Harbor. Based in Rhode Island, their consultant group helps museums and other institutions interpret their Native American collections.

“Museums in the Northeast are asking these really critical questions about, what is my role going forward? Are we enabling and empowering settler-colonial ideals in the way that we steward and also interpret our Indigenous collections?” said Spears, who is an enrolled citizen of the Navajo Nation. “Museums are looking at the places they do not have Indigenous knowledge on their own boards, in their own staff, in their own hiring process. I think it’s important for institutions to recognize the really unique forms of knowledge that Indigenous educators, Indigenous curators, Indigenous leaders bring to the spaces where they come to work.”

Spears described the process leading up to “Passages” as “extraordinary.”

“One of the things that I enjoyed the most about the methodology the PMA set out was the diversity of engagement with its consulting team,” she said. “It had all these really diverse disciplines and people with different lived experiences coming together. We were all looking at the same things from different perspectives.”

Another adviser on the project was Jordia Benjamin, deputy director at Indigo Arts Alliance, a nonprofit dedicated to the creative cultivation of artists of African descent. She said she was glad to see a museum taking a nontraditional path by inviting community knowledge to inform the installation, and she and other collaborators wanted to bring forward stories that are often excluded. She said she hopes the exhibit changes people’s perspectives.

“I hope that people walk away with a sense of action,” she said. “It’s so easy to walk into a museum and admire and appreciate the works as they are living inside that environment, but I hope that the things that are coming across through the imagery, through the audio, through the visible, those feel engaged enough to continue searching and learning more about these histories. There’s only so much you can capture in a wall text. You’re working with a word limit. These are still short stories within a larger narrative. Let this be the breadcrumbs that feeds your hunger for a larger buffet of knowledge.”

Some works will rotate or change, but “Passages” will be on display until at least 2026. The museum is planning programs to accompany the reinstallation, and Graeme Kennedy, creative director and director of public relations, said the staff is prepared to navigate pushback to some of the complicated issues that come up in the exhibit.

“That’s what we should be doing as a museum,” he said. “You can have strong feelings in a museum. Art is a great way to distill those complicated things outside in the real world through objects.”

Related Headlines

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.