Chris Hall, Curator of Exhibits at Maine Maritime Museum, learned about the ship, Dash of Portland, during what he calls the hunter-gatherer phase of planning the museum’s latest exhibit, “Subdue, Seize and Take: Maritime Maine in the Unwelcome Interruption of the War of 1812.” Hall discovered, and has on display, the June 1812 Letter of Marque signed by President James Madison which commissions the private armed brig Dash of Portland to, among other duties, “subdue, seize and take any armed or unarmed British vessel, public or private”¦.”

It was a good example of Mainers doing what they have always done when one means of livelihood becomes impossible—look for another. In this case, all fishing, shipping and trade had been cut off by the war’s embargos and blockades. Thus, when the opportunity arose, Maine captains and crews used their seafaring skills and vessels to serve as privateers. The Dash, owned by the Porter families of Portland and Freeport and others, became the most successful Maine privateer. (A model of the ship is on display at the exhibit.)

This is the tenth exhibit Hall has developed since becoming curator of the Maine Maritime Museum (MMM) in 2007. For the previous six years, he had served as registrar for MMM’s collection, which gave him familiarity with the museum’s over 20,000 objects. While he was registrar, Hall began to publish Notes from the Orlop, a popular on-line publication that highlights “extraordinary, intriguing and unexpected items from our storerooms,” items that might otherwise never be seen by the public. The publication shares intriguing details in entries like “Brush up on Your Bristles,” “All Natural, All Organic: Shell, Bone, Toothe and Nail” and “Measuring Up: Gauges, Indicators and Scales.”

Hall, whose diverse background is helpful in all aspects of creating an exhibit—he is a carpenter, librarian, sailor, boat builder, actor, and musician and holds a BA in American Studies and Masters in Library Science—says the process of finding and putting together the variety of materials in an exhibit always follows the same pattern. Once a theme has been chosen, he searches on the Internet, peruses collection databases from other museums and talks with museum curators and owners of private collections to find materials on various topics related to the exhibit. He says this phase of the planning, which can take from 12 to 18 months, is always the most enjoyable to him, but he adds that it has to end so he can buckle down to the knotty problem of deciding what to display.

In making these decisions, he looks for unique materials and objects. “I want to offer visitors something they will never see anywhere else,” he says. In addition, when possible, he wants to link the past with the present and highlight Maine’s connection to the topic. To honor the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812, this meant to focus on the war in Maine rather than the two other principal areas of fighting, New Orleans and the Great Lakes.

Once Hall has a list of possible artifacts and other materials, he works on presentation, using a computer model of the galleries to develop a plan. He tries to include material that will appeal to the diverse spectrum of visitors, who, he notes, range from kids to nonagenarians and from having a deep knowledge of American maritime history to none. For some objects there are special considerations like the need for reinforced flooring to support the weight of a cannon or for low lighting to protect fragile materials like archival papers and, in this exhibit, two fragile gowns worn to the Peace Ball held in Saco after the end of the war.

Six to eight weeks before opening, he begins to write labels. The challenge, he says, is to keep them short but also to include enough information to capture people’s interest so they will be drawn into the story behind the display. As an example, he points to a surgeon’s chest from the HMS Boxer, the British ship defeated by the USS Enterprize in one of the major battles of the war, fought off Pemaquid Point. The fact that the chest was actually on the Boxer is intriguing, but even more so is the back-story—that the surgeon was stuck on Monhegan Island and missed the battle. No one on board the Boxer was trained to deal with the wounded.

Ten days before the opening, the John G. Morse Jr. Gallery at MMM was, as sailors in Patrick O’Brian’s novels say when their ship has reached unseemly disarray, “all ahoo.” Exhibition cases were empty, some waiting to be placed on wooden bases before they were filled with artifacts; tools were scattered on work tables and carts; folders that contained archival materials were spread near their eventual locations; a dolly with an 1812 Custom House wooden chest sat in the middle of the room.

Several days later, most objects were in their cases, and Weddle was arranging fragments of a flag from the BOXER. Examples of what Hall describes as “some weirdness that always crops up during installation” had appeared: the archival material wouldn’t stand up in its cases, and Guliani had discovered typos in some of the mounted labels.

Still, it wouldn’t be long before all was shipshape, and then Hall could return to his hunter-gatherer phase to re-do the Lobster Exhibit (he is looking for a blown out diesel engine and a damaged lobster boat to display outside) and develop an exhibit on the Civil War Trail in Maine.

“Subdue, Seize and Take” closes October 28, 2012. For further information, including a link to “Notes from the Orlop,” visit