Knox Museum plans changes for this season, future

Jun 04, 2018

Thomaston — More changes are on the horizon at the General Henry Knox Museum as part of the major restructuring the museum undertook at the close of the 2017 season, according to a June 4 press release from the museum. These changes will provide a firm foundation for the museum to begin seeking a major endowment to carry it forward toward the 100th anniversary of the Montpelier mansion, the release says.

At the beginning of the year, the museum’s Executive Committee took over the management of day-to-day operations previously handled by the executive director, whose position was eliminated as part of the restructuring. In January, former Collections Manager Matthew Hansbury, who joined the museum staff in February 2007, temporarily assumed the position of operations manager, working closely with the Executive Committee on all aspects of museum management and care, from maintenance to collections, from technology to coordination of volunteers.

With input from Hansbury, the Executive Committee reworked the bylaws and rental policy and tightened its acquisitions policy to closely mirror its mission statement. With the museum’s future uncertain at the end of 2017, Hansbury, a husband and father of two young boys, had to consider guaranteed employment elsewhere. As a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom, when the Veterans Administration offered Hansbury a job earlier this spring, he felt he couldn’t turn down the opportunity to serve other veterans. Hansbury was able to extend his start date to the end of June 2018, giving the board and Executive Committee the time they needed to fully assess their position and implement a strategic long-range plan.

Over the last six months, Hansbury has worked closely with Executive Committee member and Collections Committee Chair, Mary Kay Felton on a comprehensive plan for the museum’s collection of furniture, decorative arts and historic documents. About a third of the collection is made up of items with Knox provenance, including Knox’s mirror-fronted bookcase, once believed to have been purchased from Marie Antoinette, and Knox’s Longman and Broderip pianoforte, the first such instrument in the Maine territory. Another third of the collection is comprised of period-appropriate furnishings typical of the style and type owned by Knox, but with no documented Knox provenance. The final third of the collection is primarily filler, reproductions, and late 19th-century items that were readily available when appropriate period items couldn’t be obtained at a reasonable cost.

“When you look back at the Museum’s history, particularly the late 1960s,” said Hansbury, “you see blocks of time when the museum took in items more focused on a Colonial revival interpretation than on a scholarly interpretation of how Knox’s Montpelier most likely looked from its construction in 1794 to the time General Knox died in 1806.”

“This makes perfect sense” said Felton, “given that during the late '60s our country was building up to the bicentennial and the same nostalgia that launched the turn-of-the-century movement to build Montpelier, start the Mount Vernon Ladies Association, and form organizations like the DAR and Colonial Dames, was again flooding the nation. Times like this drove people into their attics looking for “relics” they could donate to Montpelier. Sometimes donations came in with letters saying, 'until a more appropriate piece can be found.'"

According to the release, this season the museum intends to display some of those “relics” in its Thomaston room, a room devoted to the story of the building of the present Montpelier. When sharing the history of Montpelier, it is critical that visitors understand that Montpelier really has had two lives. It began life on the Georges River as the 1794 residence of retired Revolutionary War Major General and First Secretary of War Henry Knox. It was torn down in 1871 to make way for the railroad, and reborn in 1931 as Montpelier, the big white house on the hill built through the vision and generosity of the people of Thomaston as a “fitting memorial to General Knox and a place to house his relics.”

“The story is about so much more than a building, though,” said Felton. “The best part of the story is the human aspect, the story about the local folks who came out of the woodwork in the late 1920s with scraps of wallpaper from the original mansion and stair balusters that were taken as mementos of the great general when the house sat vacant and dilapidated for nearly 20 years before being razed. People brought in items their ancestors purchased when the original mansion’s contents were auctioned in 1854.

These donations, from the smallest scraps to the best pieces of furniture, contributed a wealth of knowledge that made it possible to rebuild an historically accurate Montpelier. Hansbury and Felton believe the nearly six months just spent assessing the collection will make room displays more accurate than ever before. Items with Knox provenance will take center stage at the museum this year and serve as the building blocks for new acquisitions appropriate to the years Knox lived in the (original) mansion. Visitors will see rooms interpreted in new ways based on Knox inventories, receipts and historic documents. Education is a key component to the future of any museum. Education will play a major role at the Knox Museum locally and as part of museum outreach, the release states.

Although he is leaving his employment with the museum the last week of June, Hansbury plans to continue lecturing on Henry Knox and the Knox Museum around the country. Hansbury and Felton are also busy planning a fall adult education series on a variety of history topics. The board hopes that local education-based adult and family programming, more historically accurate room displays, and Hansbury’s outreach lectures will draw the support needed to secure major long-term funding.

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