Politics

April 19, 2013

Bill aims to protect Malaga's descendants

By Susan M. Cover scover@mainetoday.com
State House Bureau

AUGUSTA – Marnie Darling Voter shared personal – and painful – secrets with Maine State Museum curator Kate McBrien.

click image to enlarge

Ciaran Seltsman, 9 of Augusta, left, and his grandfather, Robert Seltsman, of Leeds, look at items in a drawer on Thursday in the "Malaga Island, Fragmented Lives" exhibition at the Maine State Museum in Augusta.

Staff photo by Joe Phelan

McBrien was putting together an exhibit on the families of Malaga Island. Voter's descendants – the Darling family -- had left the island off Phippsburg in 1912 when the state evicted the "mixed-race community of economically struggling people perceived at the time to be a social and moral detriment to the area," said museum Director Bernard Fishman.

McBrien wanted to tell their story, and spent years cultivating the trust of Voter and others. Neither woman thought the emails they shared might be public records.

But once the exhibit went up in May, McBrien started getting requests for her documentation. Some people wanted to see all of her files, which included emails, newspaper clippings, photographs and other evidence she gathered for the exhibit.

"I had corresponded with people who are very much alive and for which this story is very real, very raw," McBrien said. "I felt like it wasn't my position to share any of that without permission. But could I do that as a state employee?"

McBrien worked with each person who requested information to determine exactly what they wanted so she could comply with the requests. But she and Fishman are concerned that the museum needs protection to exempt certain information from the state's Freedom of Access Act.

"For a reasonable period of time -- not forever," Fishman said. "We don't want to brick up history behind a wall."

At a public hearing Thursday, Fishman and Voter told lawmakers on the Education and Cultural Affairs Committee that they support L.D. 1019 to better protect ongoing historical research from public view.

Rep. Dennis Keschl, R-Belgrade, sponsored the measure, which would shield historical research that includes personally identifying information. That includes medical, psychiatric, employment, counseling or law enforcement records.

The bill also seeks to protect draft research and exhibits that are incomplete.

No one spoke against the bill at Thursday's hearing.

Voter said some of her family members only recently learned of their connection to Malaga Island. "We've been under a forced shame, a false shame," she said.

She was forthcoming in emails to McBrien, but she's not sure that other members of her family would be comfortable with public disclosure of some of those details.

"Give me a generation and I'm fine with it," Voter said.

Fishman said the exhibit, "Malaga Island, Fragmented Lives," is a different kind of display for the museum because it details a relatively recent -- and highly controversial -- event. The exhibit runs through May 26.

Some of the descendants have learned of their connection to the island within the past five years, which helps fill in blanks in family history that had never been discussed, O'Brien said.

In 2010, the Legislature passed a resolution expressing "profound regret" for the way the island's residents were treated, and Gov. John Baldacci visited the island with family members to apologize.

Former museum director J.R. Phillips submitted written testimony in support of Keschl's bill. Phillips said "well-intentioned enthusiasts" sometimes seek documentation, unaware that they might be requesting personal information.

"Like many other draft government reports and working documents, I believe Maine State Museum exhibit and publication drafts should be protected until . . . released," he wrote.

The Education Committee will vote on the bill in an upcoming work session.

 

Susan Cover can be contacted at 621-5643 or at:

scover@mainetoday.com

 

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