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Bath museum celebrates 5 decades of maritime culture

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Bath museum celebrates 5 decades of maritime culture

BATH — What started as a maritime history book project has led, 50 years later, to a museum lauded around the world.

The Maine Maritime Museum is celebrating its golden anniversary by launching a new exhibit, "Ahead Full at Fifty," recognizing the establishment's collection of historic items. The museum has gathered more than 20,000 objects, 3 million manuscript items and 130,000 photographs.

"From gowns to gunnels, we're going to strut our stuff," the museum website boasts.

The museum's story began in November 1962, when seven Bath residents – Frank Given, Duncan McInnes, Thatcher Pinkham Sr., Rodney Ross Jr., Sumner Sewall, Donald Small and Donald Spear – formed the Marine Research Society of Bath to publish a history of local shipbuilding. They also sought to create a museum and collect artifacts.

The Bath Marine Museum opened in 1964 at a 38 Centre St. storefront, and the following year the former 963 Washington St. home of Harold March Sewall was donated for the museum's use. The Marine Research Society leased the historic Percy & Small Shipyard, which was opened to the public in 1971 and remains part of the current museum's campus. The society finally published the book it was formed to create – "A Maritime History of Bath, Maine and the Kennebec River Region" – in 1973.

Restoration of the Percy & Small shipyard buildings began in 1975, the same year the organization changed its name to the Maine Maritime Museum.

As the museum collected artifacts, it also collected properties to expand its public outreach. It purchased land south of the Percy & Small site, which included the shipyard's Mould Loft building, in 1980, and the Donnell House was donated in 1981. The museum's current Maritime History Building, at 243 Washington St. overlooking the Kennebec River, opened in 1989, and the institution's library holdings and collection were moved there.

The museum's 20-acre campus comprises what once was 10 shipyards.

Executive Director Amy Lent, who has been with the museum since 2006, said Monday that attendance has held steady.

"This year, our attendance is better than it's been in decades," she said. "We've had a really great year."

Visits were up 12 percent through the end of September, Lent said, adding that the museum is expected to end the year at 50,000 visitors.

The museum's anniversary has had an impact on that upsurge, she suggested, along with some of the venue's recent exhibits, like one showcasing the War of 1812. A grant from the Maine Office of Tourism funded marketing outside Maine, Lent said.

Visits this year from four tall ships also drew attention to the museum.

But two things make the museum unique, Lent said.

"It preserves the only intact shipyard where wooden ships were built," she said. "There's no other place in America where you can stand on the grounds and in the buildings of a shipyard where these ... massive wooden sailing ships were built."

While there are other maritime museums with rich maritime history, she continued, "we in Maine, and here at this site, have the opportunity to talk about an active maritime culture that still exists. ... The maritime culture is still a very, very big part of our day-to-day life, whether it's shipbuilding, like at (Bath Iron Works), or boatbuilding of all kinds across the state, or fisheries."

The effect of that intertwining of the past with the present and future is recognized both at home and afar. Marine Insight, an international marine industry publication, recently named the Bath musuem one of the 10 best marine museums in the world.

The museum also recently received an award from Bath-based Sagadahoc Preservation for its work maintaining the Percy & Small shipyard, as well as a "Spirit of Bath" award from Main Street Bath.

"Maine Maritime Museum has been trying over the course of our 50th anniversary year to really fill ... the footprint of our name," Lent said. "... Making sure that we're telling ... a larger story of all of Maine, not just Bath or the Mid-Coast, but really representing maritime history across the whole state."

Maine Maritime Museum's merger in 2010 with the financially strapped Portland Harbor Museum, and absorption of that museum's collections and membership, is part of that expanding outreach, Lent said.

But it remains important for Maine Maritime to remain connected to its home town, she said, adding that the museum is pleased that "the local community still feels like we're here for them."

"Ahead Full at Fifty: 50 Years of Collecting at Maine Maritime Museum" runs from Nov. 10 through May 26, 2013.

Alex Lear can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 113 or alear@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @learics.