In June of 2017, I was contacted by the Grand Lodge of Maine. They were looking to acquire my portrait of Major General Henry Knox for a special exhibit at the Knox Museum. Located in the coastal town of Thomaston, the Knox Museum is a recreation of the original 18th Century home of Revolutionary War General Henry Knox, key advisor to George Washington and our nation's first Secretary of War (Fort Knox and Knoxville, Tennessee are named after him). For decades, the Maine institution had conformed to the traditional model of a “House Museum” with guided tours through rooms that appeared frozen in time. Now, they had made the bold decision to change direction and transform the Museum into a series of interactive exhibits focused on various aspects of Knox's life. Included in this vision was a display, curated by the Grand Lodge of Maine, that centered on his role as a Freemason. My original portrait of Knox was to be a central component of the exhibit and the image was printed on a promotional brochure that the Grand Lodge had prepared to illustrate his Masonic history. The framed portrait was to have an engraved brass plaque on it as well. Rather than just have my own name emblazoned there, I decided to donate the artwork in honor of my friend and Brother, Jack Hickey, who was Worshipful Master of MG Henry Knox Lodge in Boston at the time. I shipped the portrait to Maine and it was on display in the museum by mid July.
All seemed well, so it came as a bit of a surprise in December, when a statement was released saying that the Knox Museum would be forced to close if they could not raise $150,000 by January 15, 2018. In the absence of large donors, the museum was in a “dire situation.” The museum had been operating for nearly a century on a generous gift, but those initial funds had been exhausted. The building itself is a replica, built in 1929, of Knox's 1794 home which was located nearby (it fell into disrepair and was demolished in 1871). Despite being 89 years old, because the museum structure is not original, it does not meet the requirements for a protected historical site.
On January 19th, four days after the deadline, the trustees announced their decision. Although the Museum had only raised 2/3 of it's $150,000 goal, the doors of the Knox Museum would remain open... with some expected changes. The museum would continue to operate, but they would have to restructure the staff organization, keep on fundraising and move forward in envisioning new methods of engaging audiences (the bold changes in the Summer of 2017 had been the first step). All future events will be mission-driven and streamlined, focusing on Henry Knox and the Revolutionary War as well as honoring veterans. The museum also seeks to establish stronger ties within the community, encouraging citizen involvement and utilizing local resources. The trustees and staff deserve to be applauded for their admirable efforts. I am optimistic about their future path, and if you're in Maine, stop by to visit my portrait which I'm proud to say is still on display there.
Although this will likely turn out well for the Knox Museum, it draws focus on the ever-present problem of dwindling support for our smaller historical institutions. Whether it is your local historical society, library or even a Museum room that is set up in your Masonic Temple, these collections require constant effort to maintain. They rely on the dedicated support of individuals, who either donate funds or donate their time by volunteering. Museums in precarious circumstances don't necessarily have to close. Creative thinking and a concerned group of supporters can be enough to begin turning things around. Not all of us have the means to be wealthy benefactors, but everyone can play a part in helping to preserve history, ensuring that these unique museums stay open for future generations to enjoy.
Here are some easy things that can be of help:
Become a Member: If you think you'll visit a particular museum several times within a year, consider making the annual membership contribution. Quite often, it is even tax deductible.
Pay the Admission Fee: Too many visitors wait to take advantage of “free admission days” that museum's occasionally offer. These promotions don't really benefit the organizations in the long run. If you're interested in the subject, just consider paying the minimal price of admission. Ticket sales usually go directly towards operation costs.
Volunteer: While big art museums employ a staff of hundreds, most small museums have very few paid employees. Consider volunteering as a docent. Docents are an indispensable source of knowledge on tours and are the lifeblood of a museum.
Tell Your Friends: Follow the museum's Facebook page and share their events. Post your own photos and memories. Encourage others to visit the museums you enjoy. A friend's enthusiasm is a great endorsement.
Travis Simpkins is a freelance artist with clients throughout the United States and Europe. He currently works on projects for the Supreme Council, 33°, NMJ in Lexington, Massachusetts. He also serves as a portrait artist for the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts, Grand Lodge of New Jersey and other jurisdictions across North America. Bro. Simpkins is a member of Morning Star Lodge A.F. & A.M. in Worcester, Massachusetts. He is a 32° Mason in the Ancient Accepted Scottish Rite, NMJ- Valleys of Worcester and Boston. He is also a member of Eureka Royal Arch Chapter, Hiram Council of Royal & Select Master Masons and Worcester County Commandery No. 5, Knights Templar.