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How We Created the Isles of Shoals Exhibit

John Paul Jones as fishermanHISTORY MATTERS

John Paul Jones has gone fishing for the summer. The life-sized mannequin of the naval hero, the one with the foam body and the molded plastic face, has moved from his ancient bedroom in the John Paul Jones House museum to the Discover Portsmouth Center across the street. His Revolutionary War uniform has been temporarily replaced by the canvas smock and apron of an English fisherman from the 1600s. He now stands behind a crude wooden rack covered with dried codfish. On August 21, when the new exhibit ends, Jones will quit fishing and go back to fighting the Revolution. (Continued below)


The exhibit is called “Under the Isles of Shoals” and it is my debut as a volunteer museum curator. Trust me, I won’t be doing it again soon. The idea hit like a lightning bolt last June. My wife Maryellen and I were sitting at the rickety wooden picnic table in front of the Haley Cottage on Smuttynose Island (the house depicted on the label of Shoals Pale Ale) where we are long-time summer stewards.

We watched as a team of young archaeologists pulled one treasure after another from the matted soil. They had been digging on the two-acre lawn for the last four years under the direction of Prof. Nathan Hamilton from the University of Southern Maine. Nate was sitting at the picnic table too when the lightning hit. I’m a history writer, you see. Maryellen had just been hired as director of Discover Portsmouth. Nate had 250,000 cool artifacts that no one had seen and lots of stories to tell.

“We should do an exhibit!” we said. And we did. It opened last week in the old library building downtown. It’s free to the public and runs daily through August 31.

Shoals exhibit natural history display /

The master plan

Archaeology intrigues me, and the stuff Nate has discovered will forever change the history of the Shoals. But most artifacts are trash – shards of pottery, broken glass, lead bullets, and fragments of clay pipes, bits of animal, fish, and bird bone. How could we make that material exciting to locals and tourists in a large display hall?

In addition to artifacts, Nate has an incredible private collection of intact ceramics, so we added that to the show. He also has stuffed birds – gull, tern, duck, loon – the same birds people were eating at the Shoals hundreds of years ago. We added them to the show too, plus a couple of life-sized codfish. But I wanted more stuff, bigger stuff.

SEE UPDATE: What the dig is teaching us

I sketched a crude diagram of the exhibit right there at the picnic table. We divided the first floor of the exhibit room into five display stations, each representing a different era of time. Then I asked artist Bill Paarlberg, another Smuttynose steward, if he could create an illustration for each time period represented in the show. He agreed. His original drawings are a highlight of the exhibit.

Now we were getting somewhere. I put together a slide show from the photographs Nate and I took on Smuttynose. But I am a kid at heart, and I wanted something extra cool and extra big for each of the five parts of the exhibit.  Here’s what happened.

John Paul Jones plays fisherman at Discover Portsmouth / J D Robinson


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Thursday, February 22, 2018 
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