MOUNT DESERT ISLAND — The future of history has never looked so good. At least here in the Mount Desert Island area.
What used to be a scattering of old buildings and back rooms, old stuff and, frankly, old folks with a fondness for collecting all things past, has, in the last decade or so, become an active coalition of volunteers of all ages and paid experts determined to preserve and display the historical records, places and objects that have brought their various communities to the present. They are pursuing new ways to share these resources with each other and the public, both physically and digitally.
Even the most recalcitrant Luddite would likely approve of this joint effort spearheaded by the History Trust to get its now 13 member organizations to speak the same digital language (Digital Archive) and at the same time preserve their unique “voices.”
Where Our History is Housed is the first exhibit created by this coalition. In the future, according to History Trust facilitator Bruce Jacobson, the Trust hopes to create many physical exhibits at the different member venues, but due to COVID restrictions, this first is a fully digital presentation.
“In some ways, the pandemic has aided our efforts to digitize the individual collections,” Jacobson says, “People have had more time to learn about preserving photos, documents and objects and the processes of digitizing them – some of it through Zoom Meetings, which has been great.”
On the other hand, he says, many organizations get much of their revenue through summer visitors, and they were unable to open in 2020.
Also, he says, some major contributors to History Trust projects understandably diverted funds to COVID-related research.
“We depend largely on volunteers,” Jacobson says, “but there are costs involved with hardware, software and such, as well as hiring paid professionals to help design programs and pages.”
Despite some financial shortfalls, the History Trust and member organizations were able to move ahead this past year with uploading photos and information into the shared data base as well as launch the Where our History is Housed project, which can now be viewed by the public by going to https://historytrust.org/where-our-history-is-housed/.
Visitors to the site will find photos and overviews from 10 of its member organizations that highlight both the shared history of their communities and collections as well as what makes them each unique.
For instance, the Bar Harbor Historical Society recently moved into La Rochelle, its elegant new digs on West Street and a fitting home for the historical artifacts of a town whose past is so intertwined with the 19th and early 20th century wealthy “rusticators” who came here to play and socialize with their peers, trying to outdo one another with the sumptuousness of their summer “cottages.” La Rochelle, a 17th century French-style brick mansion, the site shows us, was certainly a contender for any opulence award. The handsome brick edifice was built in 1902 on a Frenchman Bay shorefront where the Abnaki people traditionally came in the summer to dig clams.
In contrast, the Tremont Historical Society site reveals a very different origin story. It is housed in what was once the community of Bass Harbor’s (formerly McKinley) general store. On its shelves, walls and display cases are a collection of photographs and objects that highlight the town’s fishing and boatbuilding past, its daily life as well its once thriving sardine packing industry. While the ground floor of what is now the Bass Harbor Country Store Museum maintains much of its general store ambience, upstairs is a climate-controlled storage room for documents and a computer room where volunteers spend hours, year-round, cataloguing and digitizing its collections.
Over in Somesville, the Mount Desert Historical Society has been housed for 20 years now in a former one-room school building. Every year (except 2020), they have hosted a variety of temporary exhibitions exploring some aspect of Mount Desert life, including offering local school children a chance to experience what it was like to attend a 19th century one-room school.
In Northeast Harbor, the village saved its old firehouse at the heart of Main Street to preserve its past treasures.
Both Great Cranberry and Islesford are represented on the website with buildings and exhibitions that demonstrate the unique close mingling of year-round residents – most of whom still fish or build boats – and summer folks and artists who have come to these outer islands for recreation and inspiration for more than a century.
Almost 50 years ago, Collage of the Atlantic began its academic life in an historic summer home. After surviving a major fire and the Great Recession, it is now a thriving internationally respected learning institution; its campus an elegant blend of the very old and the very new.
The Southwest Harbor Historical Society is just beginning its new history in the Manset Meeting House, the oldest surviving church on MDI, which it acquired three years ago. It was among the first to start digitizing its collections, in conjunction with the town’s public library.
“It is a job that will never end,” says Jacobson, “as history is always being made.
“The whole idea is to support and assist our members and show what’s available at each institution.”
The fruits of these labors, thus far, are now available on the History Trust’s website, www.historytrust.org, where, among other features, such as a tutorial on preserving old photos, one can peruse and research many of the documents, photos and objects housed at the different venues.
Jacobson says he hopes the digitizing process will become swifter and more efficient as current volunteers get better at it and more people take an interest in helping to preserve their community’s, and in many cases, their family’s, past.
To volunteer, there is contact information for each History Trust member on the Housing Our History site and the History Trust website.
To donate to this and other History Trust projects, there is a donate button on the website or checks may be sent to Maine History Trust, P.O. Box 653, Mount Desert, ME, 04660.