As the world becomes more virtual (but not necessarily more virtuous), many museums and historical societies are moving their collections online. The Maine Memory Network, launched by the Maine Historical Society in 2001, is a model of this cyber museum concept, offering access to materials from archives across the state.

This past November, the Penobscot Marine Museum (PMM) announced that they had joined the online club, placing more than 45,000 records, with nearly 30,000 of them accompanied by photographs, on the web. This trove features six of the museum’s photographic collections, including more than a 1,000 images from Atlantic Fisherman, the New England-based trade publication, and selections from Maine photographers active in the midcoast from the 1880s to the mid-1900s: Joanna Colcord, Charles Coombs, Elmer Montgomery and Ruth Montgomery. Colcord, Coombs and Ruth Montgomery were all children of ship captains, so there’s a bounty of seafaring images.

The sixth collection may be the star of the online show: photographs from the Eastern Illustrating & Publishing Co., a photo-postcard manufacturer active in Belfast from 1909 into the 1950s. The company photographed all over Maine, as well as the rest of New England and upstate New York.

The museum’s photo archivist Kevin Johnson had started a database for this collection when it was held by the Maine Photographic Workshop in Rockport. Nearly 7,000 entries had been made by 2007 when the collection, and Johnson, moved to the marine museum in Searsport. Since then, 30,000-plus records have been added to the EIPC online collection. The PMM is also raising money to secure another 7,500 negatives.

The museum had started its own database for several of its photo collections, including a remarkable cache of photographs by Everett “Red” Boutilier (1918-2003), a well-known freelance photographer and journalist who later in life focused on the Maine coast, with a special eye for boatyards. “We had to marry the various databases, which was no small task,” says Johnson. He credits a dozen or so faithful volunteers and a couple part-time workers for doing the lion’s share of the cataloging, with oversight provided by him and museum curator Ben Fuller. “The collections continue to grow so we have our work cut out for us,” says Johnson.

The virtues of a virtual database lie in part in its searchability. Test driving the marine museum’s collection, I plugged in “Katahdin” to see what would turn up. In addition to images of the steamship Katahdin on Moosehead Lake, the search produced views of the Katahdin Iron Works; the Katahdin Country Club in Milo; two bulls named Granger and Mount Katahdin (“9800 Pounds, Raised by A.S. Rand & Son, Stetson, Me”); many views of the mountain and many area camps, lakes, ponds and waterfalls; and a portrait of C. Frank Homer, captain of the Katahdin, experiencing a bad beard day.

Inspired by the success of this initial query, I plugged in an island, Great Cranberry. Only two images resulted, both views from Mount Desert Island, one of them from the Edsel Ford estate in Seal Harbor, now home of life-style maven Martha Stewart. Switching my search to “Cranberry Isles” I came up with 19 images, and an additional query of “Islesford,” aka Little Cranberry, produced 14 more. Especially interesting are the photos of early residences and buildings, including the ladies aid on the big island and the life-saving station on the little.

A number of Cranberry Isles photos had been annotated by one Willie Granston. It turns out Granston is a 19-year-old college student from Northeast Harbor who is, according to archivist Johnson, “smitten with the history of Mount Desert Island.” Having frequented the Great Harbor Maritime Museum in his home town, he had gathered a great deal of information about the area. Johnson recruited him and was pleased with the results. “I hope to find as many ‘Willie Granstons’ as I can to provide info,” he says.

Not all the photos are dated. Johnson notes that Eastern Illustrating & Publishing did not date their photos as it was to their advantage to have their photos seem timeless. “As things changed slowly back in the day,” he explains, “a postcard photo could last up to a decade before they needed to re-shoot a place.” With the help of local historians, the museum hopes to add dates or “circa” designations.

Due to its small staff and limited funding, the museum thought it wiser to post the database now and add to it later rather than wait five or ten years to get to a point where they felt it to be more complete. The site includes a feedback button, which allows people to send information about the photos that the museum can then add to the description field. “I have been telling folks to get their grandma in front of the computer and get her memories about the photos to us,” says Johnson.

Not only does this move to the web make more materials accessible to researchers and the public, the Penobscot Marine Museum receives financial support from the sale of the images. The museum is offering fine-art prints, from 8 by 10s for $25 to 16 by 20s for $60. “Many people love to decorate their homes, offices and businesses with the old photos,” Johnson says. The money earned from print sales helps to fund museum operations. “We would love to get to a point where our print sales and image licensing can make us self sustaining,” he adds.

So you build it, but do they come? Johnson reports some “significant spikes” in website usage since announcing the online collections. In addition to feedback, they have also increased orders for prints. With the museum about to upload another 30,000 images, most of them from the Boutilier collection, visits should increase.  

“In Penobscot Marine Museum’s 75th year,” Executive Director Liz Lodge says in a press release, “we have created a new ‘museum without walls’ that enables people everywhere to explore our collections for research, education, or just plain fun.” Adds curator Fuller, “By making our artifacts and historic records available online, Penobscot Marine Museum is providing a resource that’s free and available to all.” Now that’s a virtuous act.

The Penobscot Marine Museum is sharing its photography collections through several off-site exhibitions this winter. “Knox County Through Eastern’s Eye” is on display at the Camden Public Library for the month of January and selections from the Atlantic Fisherman Collection and the Elmer Montgomery Collection are on view at the University of Maine Hutchinson Center in Belfast through the end of April.