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Originally for white men only, Maine Historical Society now chronicles the state’s diverse history

Mar. 10—PORTLAND, Maine — In February 1822, Maine wasn’t quite 2 years old. The state had yet to make much history of its own since breaking away from Massachusetts in March 1820. But that didn’t stop a cadre of 49 history lovers from forming the Maine Historical Society in Portland that winter.

It was, and still is, the third-eldest state historical society in the nation. Only Massachusetts’ and New York’s historical societies are older.

Before the end of the first year, 24 more Mainers had joined, giving the new organization members stretching from York to Lubec.

Though membership was strong, it was not diverse. The society was made up entirely of wealthy, white men. Women, working-class Mainers, Indigenous people and other minorities were not welcome.

“They were all doctors, lawyers, ministers — the bigwigs of the day,” said William David Barry, a research historian with the organization for 24 years. “They mostly wanted to write about themselves.”

Accordingly, the history that members chose to preserve, study and celebrate only represented a fraction of Mainers.

It remained that way for the next 150 years.

Then, beginning about half-a-century ago, things began to change as new, younger blood elbowed its way into the staid institution. This year, the society is celebrating its 200th birthday and the inclusive, outward-looking organization it has become — one that acknowledges and honors the diverse lineage of all Mainers.

But change was slow in coming to the society dedicated to Yankee history.

The original founders’ group diversity only amounted to them being mostly Congregationalists, sprinkled with a few Baptists. Early on, members collected items and papers related to Maine’s Wabanaki and Catholic residents but always as outsiders looking in on curiosities.

The society’s first home was in the Senate chamber in the State House, which was in Portland at the time. Among its members were many politicians, including Maine’s first governor, William King. Its first president was the state’s second governor, Albion Keith Parris.

The society’s headquarters and collection moved to Bowdoin College in Brunswick in the 1830s, where it was mainly accessible only to academics for the next 40-something years. It eventually moved to Portland in the 1880s, taking up residence in the old city hall in Monument Square. The society began to creep toward being more publicly visible when it found digs in the new public library on Congress Street in 1889.

In 1901, upon her death, Anne Longfellow Pierce willed her Congress Street home and adjacent property to the society. The organization turned the residence, where Pierce’s brother, poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, grew up into one of the first house museums in the country.

Behind the modest brick dwelling, the society built its permanent home and library.

Though Pierce was a benefactor, she could not be a member of the closed society, which was still an all-male affair. Women, who had long clamored for membership, were not admitted as members until 1909.

In 1948, Deering High School history teacher Elizabeth Ring became the first woman elected to the society’s board of directors. Ring held the post of vice president from 1954 until 1970. During her tenure she worked hard, prying open what she called “the good old boys” club.

She also excited many of her young students’ interest in becoming involved.

In 1969, against the backdrop of ongoing, youth-oriented social upheavals in the nation, a group of young historians tried to unseat long-serving officers at the organization’s annual meeting. The upstarts argued for more openness, fundraising and community involvement.

Among the youth movement was current State Historian Earle Shettleworth and former Portland history professor William B. Jordan. Both are now considered Maine history superstars.

The youth movement succeeded in replacing only one board member but began loosening the old guard’s grip, sparking a new era of openness at the society.

“It really pepped up the whole organization,” Barry said.

The invitation-only club also finally opened up to general membership, minorities included.

Nick Noyes was one of Ring’s young devotees and eventually became the society’s librarian in 1988. Noyes held the position for more than 30 years, helping oversee several modernization projects at the organization including the card catalog’s digital transformation.

“When I started in 1988, there were over 17 different card catalog files spread out over three floors,” Noyes said. “It wasn’t very helpful.”

Under Noyes’ leadership, the scattered paper catalogs became a single, keyword-searchable database available to anyone, around the globe, via the internet. It made the society’s holdings much more egalitarian and accessible to the general public.

Noyes also points to the development of the statewide Maine Memory Network, administered by the society, as a major leap forward.

“It’s been a godsend for finding visual material,” he said.

The network, launched in 2001, is a collaborative effort between the society and smaller history organizations. Together, their pooled visual resources, such as paintings and photographs, are searchable in a single online database. Anyone can browse the holdings of dozens of historic collections, from all over the state.

In the 1990s, the society bought the former Day’s Jewelers building next door, for a long-dreamed-of museum space, lecture hall and offices. With the museum, the organization finally had a public place to display and interpret its vast collection of historic items—which had mostly been stored away in storage.

The museum space has also allowed the society to diversify the state’s historic narrative, expanding it from a story mainly about white, colonial settlement, to one that includes multiple genders, races and points of view.

Curator Tilly Laskey said the museum tries hard to look for items and artifacts within its existing collections related to Maine’s underserved communities and then pair them with first-person narratives from people within those communities.

Called collaborative curation, it’s a process of letting people tell their stories, rather than the society telling it for them.

“People need to see themselves represented in history to actually care about history,” Laskey said. “It’s vital to this organization’s success.”

Recent museum offerings have included online and in-person exhibits exploring the Black soldiers who guarded Maine during World War II, 19th century non-binary, queer and transgender figures of New England and last year’s sprawling “Begin Again: Reckoning with Intolerance in Maine. “

In 2019, the society’s museum featured “Holding Up the Sky,” a nearly year-long exhibit honoring and exploring Wabanaki experiences in Maine, encompassing Maliseet, Micmac, Passamaquoddy and Penobscot peoples.

The exhibit was co-curated between Laskey and seven Indigenous leaders from around the state including James Francis, Darren Ranco, Theresa Secord and Donald Soctomah.

Laskey said she now consults with Indigenous curators on nearly every show she puts together, whether it’s focused on their stories or not.

The first paragraph on the society’s website page dedicated to its history states, “Maine Historical Society acknowledges our organization and all of Maine resides on Wabanaki Homelands, the land and waters of Ckuwapohnakiyik, which Wabanaki peoples have stewarded for over 13,000 years.”

Maine Historical Society Executive Director Steve Bromage said he wants history to be a collaborative, community process belonging to all Mainers, not just a select, self-elected group of experts. Bromage said he sees the society’s 21st-century goal is to help connect everyone with Maine connections — whether their family has been here for generations or they just arrived.

He thinks Maine’s past can be a conduit to what’s to eat.

“History has the power to show people that this place has always been constantly changing,” Bromage said, “It can also show them the future and help them embrace it.”

“Maine Historical Society in Pictures: exploring our first 200 years” is now on display at the society’s museum in Portland. An online version of the exhibition is also available.

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