Maine’s maritime past and the future came together on the Kennebec River in Bath one cold day in November. From her third-floor office in the Maine Maritime Museum (MMM), museum director Amy Lent gestured toward the window overlooking the river while a Zumwalt-class guided-missile destroyer launched that day by Bath Iron Works passed by. “You have no real idea how large it is,” she said, noting the height of the ship against the opposite riverbank. The grey, futuristic vessel was on its way to San Diego for its official commissioning in January 2019.
Bath is known as “The City of Ships,” where hundreds of wooden and other vessels have been built and launched along the river over the centuries. The Maine Maritime Museum sits on the former site of one of the city’s premier yards, the Percy & Small Shipyard. Since 2006, Lent has led the Museum in its quest to be a dynamic educational institution, both for Bath and for the state as a whole.
A vivacious woman, Lent has brought a practical, business perspective to the Museum. “Our purpose is to preserve Maine’s maritime heritage but we are not a warehouse. We are here to educate and teach people and we use the collections to do so,” she said. “We don’t exist to make money, we make money in order to continue to exist.”
Lent followed an unusual path to her position as museum director. Brought up in New Jersey, she visited New York City museums on school trips while a child but never considered a museum career. “I wanted to be a buyer for Saks Fifth Avenue since I was twelve years old,” she laughed. “That’s all I wanted.” As a young woman she did land a job at the venerable company, eventually becoming a women’s designer-sportswear buyer. From there she moved on to work in several national fashion retail companies as well as a pet supply company based in Toronto. She last worked for seven years as the head of operations and marketing at the James A. Michener Art Museum in Doylestown, Pennsylvania.
“I’ve always been interested in business but also the creative side of things,” Lent said. She decided that it was time to pursue the challenge of top position at a museum so when she saw the job announcement for the MMM director position, she promptly applied. The time was right for someone with Lent’s business background. History museums had once been a place where Ivy League-educated persons, typically men, rose from the rank of curator to museum director. But as federal funding slowly dried up for private museums and the public’s attention became diverted by the allure of Internet-based entertainment, museums found themselves in need of new, pragmatic approaches.
“We don’t have investors here. We have donors. Those donors want to feel that their investment in the museum returns value to them in individual ways,” Lent explained. That means building relationships with a diverse set of donors. The Museum and its 28-person board underwent a strategic planning process shortly after Lent arrived. Since that time Lent has overseen establishment of numerous new permanent exhibits as well as expanded public education programs targeted at local communities.
“The purpose [of the Museum’s exhibits] is for people to come here and say ‘Wow! I had no idea that Maine’s maritime heritage had such an impact on America and still does. I want to know more!’,” Lent said enthusiastically. “We’ve added one big new thing each year since 2012, exhibits that are interactive and capture people’s imaginations.”
Among the museum’s major new exhibits is one on the state’s lobstering industry, opened in 2015. “People visiting the museum would ask crazy questions about lobstering because they just didn’t know. That’s our job, to give them information in fun and engaging ways,” Lent explained. The new, 5,000-square-foot exhibit involved gutting two floors of a building and took three years to complete. To ensure that “Lobstering and the Maine Coast” covered the most important aspects of the fishery, Lent drew on the knowledge of scientists, lobstermen, and others involved in lobstering. “We heard that they wanted us to emphasize the sustainability of the fishery, how diverse the industry is, and that there is no one stereotypical lobsterman,” Lent said. One wall of the building is covered with lobster buoys donated by lobstermen. Using touch-screen kiosks, visitors can see information and pictures related to each buoy, including the lobsterman’s name, location, boat name, and stories he or she contributed.
Lent beams with pleasure when talking about the Museum’s new exhibits, whether on lobstering, lighthouses or the newest topic, neighboring Bath Iron Works’ long history. The words “new,” “exciting,” and “fun” bubble up throughout her conversation. “My job is to get the resources to help the curators do the best they can do, to make cool, fun things happen. There are a lot of great people here who figure things out and take risks,” she said.
After twelve years on the job, Lent shows no signs of slowing down. Next among the Museum’s many projects is a revamp of the entire landscape and entrance plan for the Museum. Currently visitors face a daunting series of steps to move from the parking lot to the Museum’s entrance. The new plan replaces the climb with a gentle entranceway interspersed with parking areas and small groups of native trees species used in tradtional boatbuilding. An elevated boardwalk will run along the river in the south section of the 5-acre property. At the new entry plaza an outline of the Kennebec River, from Moosehead Lake to its mouth at Popham Beach, will be inset in concrete. “Children will love it!” Lent said. And not only children. It’s clear that for Lent, each new project is an expression of her love of Maine and its rich maritime history.