News

April 25, 2008

Discovering History’s Stories

Pete Lesher ’90 is curator of collections at Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum

By Kate Helm

As curator of collections at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St. Michaels, Md., Pete Lesher ’90 appreciates having attended a liberal arts college where he could rub elbows with engineering students in the classroom

“I had History of Technology with ‘Screaming’ Charlie Best,” he says. “It was a class that attracted engineers, but because I took that, Screaming Charlie made a point of explaining how and why engineers think differently. Today I have to think about things like climate control, etc., and because of that [class], I understand a little better how I need to communicate with an engineer.”

There’s a story Lesher likes to tell when he gives museum tours. It encapsulates not only a thrilling moment in his career, but why his job is “immensely satisfying” on a day-to-day basis.

During a move to a new storage facility a few years ago, Lesher and his staff examined objects in the museum’s collection that had been overlooked. Everything, he says, got at least a cursory look and cleaning. One of the objects Lesher examined was a toy model of a sailboat that was not even a type of Chesapeake Bay vessel. But when he was ready to remove it from the collection, Lesher noticed a handwritten inscription dated Nov. 2, 1932, indicating the boat was made “at home by an orphan boy” who was 83 years old when he carved it.

“There was no record of donation, no story,” says Lesher. “History museums collect objects, not because of their intrinsic value, but because of the story the object tells. This model had been made by the most prominent boat builder in St. Michaels – we had some letters and the handwriting matched. All of a sudden this object had a story. Here is what our greatest boat builder did in his retirement; it’s part of his life story. It was the sort of discovery I was in the right place and time to make.”

Lesher’s principal duties include collecting for the museum and serving as the point of contact for donors who want to give items ranging from floating watercraft down to sailors’ needles. He also is in charge of archival collections, which include manuscripts, photos, and even oral histories. This May marks Lesher’s 17th anniversary with the museum he joined after earning his M.A. in history from Columbia University.

“I enjoy the opportunity for one-on-one contact,” he says. “People feel more comfortable giving something to the museum knowing it will be appreciated in its new home, and I’m able to offer that.”

He also is a staff writer for the museum’s quarterly magazine, which he uses as an outlet for his personal research interests, particularly wooden shipbuilding on the Chesapeake. His writings also have touched on oral histories, changing land use, and subjects inspired by the museum’s collections. His paper on the guano trade earned him a spot at a conference in Hawaii on Pacific Rim maritime history. He then developed the paper into an article that was published in the refereed journal Maryland Historical Magazine, which won the Marion V. Brewington Prize from the Maryland Historical Society.

A true water enthusiast, Lesher devotes most of his summers to sailing log canoes. He’s been with the same boat, originally built in 1882, for about ten seasons. Log canoes typically take crews of 7-15 people.

“I only really got involved in sail racing when I moved down here,” he explains. “Boats were always an interest of mine, and I got to indulge that interest when I started living near the waterfront. It’s an interesting mix of history and innovation. The horsepower they put on these in terms of sail area is just immense.”

Lesher also makes time to share his enthusiasm for maritime history and activities with Lafayette students, so far hosting nine externs. The first, history graduate Beverly Kendall Gordon ’00, went on to work in the profession and is now a site administrator with the Bucks County Historical Society/Fonthill Museum in Doylestown, Pa.

Last January, he hosted art major Kristin Hayes ’08 (Roseland, N.J.) and American studies majors Madalyn Booth ’08 (Wallingford, Pa.) and Katie Thompson ’09 (Glenside, Pa.). The students got an in-depth look at the breadth of Lesher’s responsibilities and helped with activities such as striking the exhibit and drafting labels for the next exhibit in the Hooper Strait Lighthouse, assisting with a move in the storage room, and preparing full condition reports for each item of a temporary exhibit being prepared for shipment.

“[Hosting externships] fits in with a lot of what I do,” says Lesher, who also has served as an alumni admissions representative, mostly on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, for the past ten years. “I feel an obligation to civic duty, and part of that is giving back to my alma mater. That’s essentially what attracts me to this. I stumbled into my profession through an internship, and I can afford other people the opportunity to test the waters. If the outcome is, ‘Yes, I want to try this a little more,’ that’s just as valid as an experience that sends someone running away screaming, ‘This isn’t for me.’ But I don’t think I’ve scared any Lafayette externs away.”

Lesher believes Lafayette gave him valuable skills that continually benefit him today.

“Lafayette was really gearing up its writing program when I was an undergraduate,” he says. “With that big emphasis, I profited greatly and really built my writing skills, which served me well in graduate school. Written communication is such a big part of what I do here. In particular, my writing was improved through the experience of editing draft after draft of my senior thesis under the guidance of Bill Melin [emeritus professor of music]. I also had the pleasure of sailing with Professor Melin while at Lafayette.

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