How a New York native transformed Belfast’s fledgling history museum into a vibrant heart of the city
BELFAST, Maine – Megan Pinette knows more about the history of Belfast than anyone else, but she didn’t grow up hearing the stories and lore of the city of 7,000 people that sits in the middle of the coast.
Instead, the longtime president of the Belfast Historical Society and curator of the Belfast Museum hails from Queens, New York, about as different from a small town in Maine as it gets. But in retrospect, Pinette’s upbringing helped set her on this path. In the 1950s, his family spent a lot of time in the city’s museums: American Museum of Natural History, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, The Met Cloisters.
“Being in a museum is very comfortable for me,” Pinette, 69, said this week.
After graduating with a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Hartford Art School, she and her husband, artist Dennis Pinette, moved to Belfast in 1983. This was during a time of transition for the city, which was in its last years of its chicken processing industry.
Although today’s coveted downtown properties sell quickly and for sums of money that seem enticing to old-timers, that wasn’t the case back then. The young couple was able to buy a large, run-down house near the water for just $19,000.
Firmly established in Belfast, the Pinettes have been at the forefront of the city’s transformation from its past as an industrial chicken industry into the thriving, even gentrified, tourist destination it has become today.
But as a newcomer and then a busy mother from 1988, Pinette didn’t necessarily understand what the changes happening around her meant for the city’s generational residents. That started to change in the late 1990s, when she volunteered to help with her son’s fifth grade class.
“The teacher said, ‘Well, we’re thinking of doing Belfast history.’ And I said, ‘Oh, okay. I don’t know anything, but let’s see what we can do. And I really didn’t know how to teach children, so it became more my own interest.
Pinette dove in, reading about local history and the fascinating people who had lived in the town.
“So that led me to Grove Cemetery, and I walk around and read these headstones and I’m like, ‘How come we don’t talk about these people? How come I don’t know these people? »
There was Nathan Read, an early engineer and inventor who was an innovator in steamboat, windmill, water power and threshing technology, who died in Belfast in 1849. There was John Cochran , who participated in the Boston Tea Party, two former Maine governors and Civil War veterans aplenty.
Her interest was piqued and she wanted to know more. Pinette made contact with a member of the historical society, who directed her to a very old woman in town who was close to death but still had all her faculties – and her memories. This woman gave Pinette an insight into the history of Belfast.
Soon after, Pinette received the key to the museum building, which lacked a website, hours of operation, and even a phone. And what happened next won’t surprise anyone who’s volunteered for anything in Maine.
“Next thing I know, I’m on the board and I’m secretary and then, you know, a year and a half later, I’m president,” she said.
She and the society’s volunteers got to work, cleaning the barn next to the museum in downtown Belfast and assessing what was there. She and a few others took a museology course offered by the University of Maine and joined the professional association Maine Archives & Museums.
The Belfast Historical Society and Museum was in the process of being modernized, but it was a big process. Instead of the well-curated exhibits, photographs and boxes of archived documents that are there now, it was more laid back, Pinette said.
Much more laid back.
“There were plastic trash bags full of photographs and letters,” she said. “And the whole building was full of three-drawer desks. The top drawer would have a hammer, tacks, and tape measure. And then the bottom drawers would be photographs, papers and books.
It was a treasure hunt and a challenge, and Pinette, the volunteers and the interns were up to it. A man spent 15 years making sense of archival material, organizing documents and creating a card catalog system. They created permanent exhibitions from the objects and began to put together displays that would bring Belfast’s history to life.
“It’s really been in the last 20 years that the museum finally came to be itself and then entered the digital world,” Pinette said.
The pandemic, which has reduced museum attendance to a tenth of what it normally is in the summer of 2020, has been a challenge. But she is delighted that the world seems to be back on more normal grounds this summer.
Pinette once again shares her love of community history, including offering hour-long walking tours at 10 a.m. on Fridays in July and August. Tour groups meet at the Belfast Chamber of Commerce information desk at 14 Main Street, and she asks those interested to donate $10 to the Belfast Historical Society.
On tours, Pinette shares information about Belfast’s history, events and architecture, and true to form, doesn’t shy away from the more recent issues that have shaped the city, including the fight for Walmart that rocked community in the early 2000s and the loss of chicken processing plants. Pinette will give a presentation on the evolution of the industrial waterfront between 1980 and 1990 at 7pm on Monday July 25 in the Abbott Room of the Belfast Free Library.
“I’m starting to understand a bit of the angst of what happened here in town, with the loss of industries,” she said. “I am extremely sympathetic.”