Museum in a Box
The Maine State Museum has problems. A lot of problems. The showcase for ten thousand years of Maine's history occupies a building that is past its prime, even obsolete. The museum itself is struggling to find a future amid a long list of woes - it lacks attendance, money, space, staff, storage, and parking. A legislative task force has recommended drastic and expensive changes that have sparked wide-ranging and occasionally sharp-edged internal debates.
Meanwhile, ticking away in the background is the countdown to Maine's bicentennial in 2020. Thirteen years sounds like forever, but events move slowly at the Maine State Museum. Its next major exhibit, At Home in Maine, has been ten years in the making and still won't open until November 2008 - and then only if almost a million dollars in outside funding can be raised to cover its cost. That's without the prospect of major building renovations or a complete relocation hanging over the heads of the museum's leadership.
The museum exists to catalog, preserve, and display Maine's history, but the job has gotten a lot more difficult in recent years. Its collection of artifacts, ranging from Paleo-Indian stone scrapers to a forty-foot fire engine, overflows the museum's own vaults and piles up in four different storage sites in the Augusta area. Yet despite an abundance of potential material, little of it can be displayed in a museum that has scant room for new exhibits.
Museum director Joseph "J.R." Phillips talks often of the glory days of the museum, when it had a staff of more than thirty people, a supportive budget, and brand-new permanent exhibits that were attracting 132,000 people every year. Ironically, he's speaking of the days of his predecessor, Paul Rivard, who led the museum for fourteen years in the 1980s and 1990s. These days Phillips has two-thirds of the staff and half the visitors.
Phillips arrived in 1992, in time for a major state budget crisis during the administration of Governor John McKernan. Funding cuts forced layoffs and required the museum to start charging admission. Attendance dropped immediately and didn't start to recover until the admission fee was revoked in 1996. Fees were imposed again in 2003 and continue today. Attendance has dropped from 101,000 in 1996 to 57,800 in 2006.
The admission charge - currently two dollars for adults, one dollar for children - gets most of the blame for the loss of visitors, but attendance was in decline even before then. Attendance peaked in 1990 at 132,000. Since then, numbers have gone down steadily even in years when admission wasn't charged. As public visits have declined, so has the museum's own visibility and with it the museum's ability to rally public support for its mission and its budget.
Part of the decline in interest can be traced to Phillips' philosophy that the museum exists primarily to serve the history curriculum in the state's schools. "Our first market is the elementary schools," Phillips says. "Second are Maine families, and third are visitors from out of state."
Phillips defends the rationale by pointing out that, while overall attendance has gone up and down over the years, school visits have remained stable at about 27,000 students a year. He doesn't have the time or the money for publicity campaigns aimed at tourists.
The result is that, of the 40,200 square feet of exhibit space, almost 90 percent is given over to permanent exhibits, some of them in place since the 1980s. The most recent permanent display is Twelve Thousand Years in Maine, and that opened ten years ago. Phillips says he expects permanent exhibits to stay in place for seventy years, with periodic upgrades.
Less than five thousand square feet are available for rotating or temporary exhibits. Even temporary exhibits, such as the recently closed display featuring Maine-made glass, stay around for five years. Smaller rotating exhibits find room in nooks and crannies and in the atrium at the entrance of Maine's Cultural Affairs Building, which houses the museum along with the Maine State Archives and the State Library. Practically speaking, there is little or no room for traveling exhibits from other museums.
"The [large] exhibits tend to live beyond their useful lives," offers Richard Doyle, president of the Maine Archaeological Society. "And so many exhibits there are built in. . . . People who came as youngsters are grown and bringing their own families now and are seeing the same exhibits they saw as children. It's a matter of funding, I'm sure."
The museum's current $1.7 million annual budget "keeps the doors open," Phillips says, and supports a staff of twenty-three. "If we had more money, we'd have more exhibits and newer exhibits," Phillips explains.
In the past five years Phillips has also raised almost $3.5 million from private donors, including a $1 million endowment fund gift. State money does not underwrite new exhibits, so he has to raise funding from private sources, such as the Friends of the Maine State Museum. "There's more time between major exhibits because it takes so long to raise the money," he explains. Yet he also acknowledges that it is new exhibits that bring in visitors.
When you look at earlier civilizations, what you look for is their art and music," muses Margaret Kelley, chair of the Maine State Museum Commission, which oversees the museum. "Isn't it too bad that cultural areas seem to be the most superfluous government agencies?"
The museum, like the other state cultural agencies, comes under the responsibility of the legislature's Committee on Educational and Cultural Affairs. In practical terms, that means the museum is a very small candle in a universe filled with supernovas.
"The Education Committee is up to its ears just in K-12," observes Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap in what may be, given the current controversy over education in Maine, one of the year's biggest understatements. "What we need is another committee, so there's one devoted to K-12 and another to higher education and cultural affairs."
Dunlap, a former legislator and Bar Harbor native, has an interest in the issue because last year the legislature asked him to chair - and absorb the cost of - the Cultural Building Task Force, which was charged with investigating and making recommendations about the museum's home. That was the easy part, Dunlap recalls. "Oh, the building is falling apart. Duh. You don't need a study to know that," he says.
The current building opened in 1971, financed with a $6.5-million bond issue. The cultural center was a "watershed event," says Dunlap. The museum had formerly occupied a corner of the basement in the State House, while the state archives were scattered all over Kennebec County. For the first time the museum, the archives, and the library had a modern, spacious home.
"You know why that building was needed?" Dunlap asks rhetorically. "Those were the days when the original, hand-written Maine State Constitution was stored in an abandoned elevator shaft. Can you believe it? The original document, not some copy, the real thing. Joshua Chamberlain's handwritten reports to the governor from the battlefields of the Civil War were kept in cardboard boxes in a damp powder magazine."
Almost immediately, the new building was obsolete. "The energy crisis hit in 1973, and that building has concrete walls and no insulation," Dunlap explains. "Plus there's no vapor barrier to help protect artifacts."
Dunlap's commission settled on two options: renovate and expand the existing building along the lines proposed in a 2001 report by Harriman Associates of Portland or build an entirely new cultural affairs building. A slight majority, including Dunlap, favored the latter option. Phillips and the museum commission were not among them.
Dunlap, a self-described history buff, sees the museum's success depending on a huge new building that, if constructed, would be the largest public works project in Maine's history. He looks at the drooping attendance figures and the overwhelming space given to permanent exhibits and sees an institution that needs a major shock to the system to get it moving again.
"We need an honest discussion of what the mission [of the museum] should be and what it's going to be," he urges. "We can't have the status quo, because the status quo has gotten us to where we are today."
One idea would site the new building on fourteen acres currently occupied by the Maine Department of Transportation fleet half a block up Capitol Street from the statehouse complex. Another, and the one Dunlap prefers, would put it square in the middle of the complex, in what is now the parking lot behind the Cross Office Building. The fleet center would be turned into parking for 750 vehicles.
The existing cultural building would be renovated into the new home for what Dunlap calls "the little wanderers of state government," the Maine Supreme Court, which now operates out of inadequate facilities in Portland and Augusta, and the Maine Law Library, currently housed in the statehouse.
It's an ambitious plan, as well as hugely expensive. Preliminary estimates put the project's overall price at $200 million. By comparison, the new Penobscot Narrows Bridge over the Penobscot River was $85 million.
Phillips falls back on the Harriman report, which suggested renovating the existing building and adding a large addition at an overall cost in 2006 dollars of $58 million. Moving the museum to a new building doesn't even enter his conversation. Phillips and his supporters are cast in the rather odd position of being institutional caretakers who don't want to create a legacy of new buildings and programs, but rather favor a slow but sure improvement of the existing situation.
"We would like to stay right where we are," says Kelley, of the museum commission. The commission sent a letter to Dunlap's task force supporting the renovation and expansion of the existing building. Among other reasons, the commission worried that talk of moving to a new building would endanger donations from the museum's private supporters for existing projects, including the At Home in Maine exhibit.
"We've been doing quite a bit of private fund raising," Kelley explains. "How can we collect money from people for an exhibit and then go back to them and explain that we're ripping it all down?" In addition, by one estimate moving the permanent exhibit to a new home would cost $20 million by itself.
There's the pragmatic as well as the philosophical side of the discussion, notes Earle Shettleworth, Jr., director of the Maine Historic Preservation Commission and chairman of the Capitol Planning Commission, which oversees the management of the statehouse complex. And he notes that the master plan for the area approved in the late 1990s envisions the museum staying where it is and being enlarged. Also, the museum facility does not loom large - or even at all - on any list of state capital improvement projects.
"The question is, what is truly feasible for investment for the cultural building?" Shettleworth asks. "Even renovation and expansion would cost an enormous amount." And given the state's current fiscal crisis, "I don't see how the state can find the money for a new building," he concludes.
"What we need is a reality check," Shettleworth adds, "and the reality check says that at the very best, given the state's limited ability to do major infrastructure projects and the various competing interests for state funding, we will be lucky if we can renovate the existing building."
Shettleworth recognizes that his pragmatism can be taken as pessimism, and "I don't want to be classified as not being a visionary. My favorite quote is from [Chicago architect] Daniel Burnham: 'Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men's blood . . . ' But I do not think it's realistic to build a new cultural building. It just isn't there."
Phillips insists that the museum is about to experience a renaissance in popularity, starting with the opening of a new exhibit about the Popham Colony on November 10. With the completion of several long-term projects, "we can finally start doing things that we've had to put on hold," Phillips says.
Whether that's enough to reverse the current trends is an open question. "Doing nothing is not an option," Dunlap insists.