Doug Johnstone is the Town Clerk of Provincetown, Massachusetts, and the coordinator of the Provincetown History Preservation Project. The Project maintains a digital archive of items relating to Provincetown history on its website.
Q1. The Provincetown History Preservation Project’s “About Us” page states that, prior to the start of this project, “the material had since been stored in an inappropriate and inaccessible attic storage location and was quickly fading from public memory.” What inadequacies did you see at the time, and what made you decide that these materials were worth preserving and sharing?
The sentence references the initial focus of the Provincetown History Project: the material and artifacts that were once a part of the Provincetown Heritage Museum, in operation from 1976 until the doors were closed to the public in 1999. The Museum, and its contents, remained in the closed building from 1999 to 2002, when the Provincetown Public Library was scheduled to move into the old Heritage Museum building and the contents of the Museum were then moved to “temporary” storage on the third floor attic space in one of the Town’s municipal buildings, a wooden structure originally built in the early 1800’s. The attic space was only accessible by a narrow wooden staircase, with little to no ventilation and subject to heat and humidity. The Town’s plan in 2002 was to have the material conveyed to the Pilgrim Monument and Provincetown Museum, but negotiations between the Town and the Monument had broken down completely by 2004 over additional money that the Monument required the Town pay in order to properly house the collection. While the initial dollar amount of $800,000 the Monument was requesting was ultimately reduced to $500,000, the Town could not afford to pay, and by 2005 the short term storage location had become more or less permanent.
The space was cramped, dusty, humid, not secure, and completely inadequate. Due to limited space, boxes were piled on top of each other and amongst physical artifacts. Any manner of material, including glass plate negatives, photographs, paper documents, and books were mixed in with actual artifacts, that included just about everything from whale bones, assorted furniture, oars, signage, cannon balls, and netting – all on top of each other, with no clear pathways or room to get to a particular box even if it could be easily located.
I had the archive index on my computer. By default I became the person people came to in order to research or access material they believed to be a part of the Heritage Museum. There was no way that researchers, or the public in general, could directly access the material, so it was up to me to retrieve items for review. There were several problems with this, as you can imagine: the attic storage was not in the building I worked in; inevitably, whatever box I was looking for was always on the bottom of a large pile and way in the back under the lowest part of the roof; material, once retrieved, needed to be returned to the proper box; the attic itself was secured with a simple lock and chicken wire, with little or no security as numerous people had access to the key and there was no daily oversight of the attic storage area.
There was never a doubt in my mind that the material was important and needed to be available, as it was carefully and thoughtfully curated for the past thirty years by one of the Town’s foremost archivists and founder of the Heritage Museum, Josephine Del Deo. Once I knew for certain that the material would not be transferred to the Pilgrim Monument and Provincetown Museum, and that the Town had no plan for the material other than to leave it in the attic, I began to discuss the problem with others in the community and that was the start, in 2005, of the Provincetown History Project.
Q2. It seems like digitization and accessibility have been at the heart of this project from the beginning. How did you decide on this approach for sharing Provincetown’s history? What are some challenges and rewards you have encountered along the way?
There were several goals, some of them immediate concerns that became priorities and others more long term. We needed to get the material out of the inadequate attic storage area and to find a suitable location that would allow us to inventory and assess the material. Another one of our goals was to get the material out in public view, for if it simply remained in boxes it would likely fade from public memory or vanish altogether. Digitization appeared the best way to accomplish this goal while also protecting the originals as much as possible.
There were many challenges in dealing with the material at hand: finding sufficient space to inventory and assess the material; finding people with the time, and in some cases expertise, to help with the evaluation process; equipment to scan selected material, not to mention archival supplies to protect the material; money to pay for equipment and materials as no budget was allocated for this purpose; and ultimately development of a website. As if that wasn’t enough, a further long range goal was to display the physical artifacts in some way throughout the Town’s municipal buildings. This group effort relied on much hard work, good will from the community, monetary support from incredibly generous donors, community grants, luck, and what I can only attribute to divine intervention.
The experience has truly been a rewarding one. Working with others in the community on a common vision is a great experience. Meeting goals that at times appeared insurmountable continues to astonish me. A few years into the History Project we also began to digitize the material in the Town’s own municipal archives, and also began receiving significant material from the public and other Town institutions that otherwise may not have been available to the public at large. Having all of this material available to the public through our searchable website is incredibly satisfying. My own ongoing education about the Town’s history and the importance of preserving and remembering our past has been an unexpected and much appreciated benefit as well.
Q3. You were the Town Clerk when Provincetown began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. How do the materials in the Same-Sex Marriage Collection help create a portrait of the town at that time?
The material found in the Same Sex Marriage Collection on the History Project website is from my own files that I managed to keep at the time and was planning to archive in 2010. I remember thinking in 2010 that it was way too soon to place it on the History Project website, but felt it important to remember the event that had such a positive impact on the community. Provincetown became a focus of intense national and international attention during that period, and I had wanted to show the immense outpouring of excitement and support from the community not only on the issue of fairness and equal rights for all, but also to the Town Clerk’s Office specifically. Town government officials took a truly activist stance in response to then Governor Mitt Romney’s attempt to prevent issuance of marriage licenses to same sex couples, and their leadership actions are an important reminder of what our community values. The plan is to add to the collection as material presents itself. While certainly not the definitive record of events from that time, it provides some insight to any future researcher interested in the issue.
Q4. Collections such as the aforementioned Same Sex Marriage Collection and the Safe Harbor/AIDS Archive provide glimpses into the ways one community has responded to developments that have impacted queer people nationwide and beyond. Building on the last question, but thinking more broadly, what can an understanding of Provincetown’s history teach us about queer history in the United States?
The two collections referenced in your question represent, to me, the importance of documenting and remembering our past. As specific members in the community change, and as the community itself changes, it is far too easy to forget the joy, celebration and fight over same sex marriage that the community experienced, for example, or the true heroism, dedication and loss experienced in Provincetown in response to HIV/AIDS. Each collection is a snapshot of the community at that particular place in time and clearly show the community values of the period. Provincetown, like other communities, is always changing. Provincetown’s response to the AIDS crisis within the community, and even more recently the Town’s reaction to same sex marriage, both relatively recent events, are already relegated to a memory that not everyone who lives here shares. As a community, if we don’t know where we came from and what we valued, we risk losing our identity.
Q5. Is there a particular item or aspect of Provincetown history that is particularly intriguing to you? Why is it so interesting or significant?
Personally, I am always on the lookout for material related to the late 1960’s and 1970’s. This time period is little represented in Provincetown History Project material that is currently in the collection. I suspect people might have thought it not of historic value, or historic enough, to save or consider donating or lending to the Town. Parts of the Town’s collective memory of that period may also have been lost far too prematurely due to the ravages of AIDS in the community in the decades that followed. As a teenager experiencing Provincetown for the first time in the mid 1970’s, the sense of belonging and excitement in being gay was palpable at a time when this was certainly not the case throughout the country. Gathering material from this period may provide further evidence in the historical chain to help determine just what it was about Provincetown that brought about that spirit of openness and acceptance. This is a question I find people asking to this day, and will likely continue to ask well in to the future.