AUGUSTA –The Maine State Museum’s director is stepping down after two decades at the helm.

Joseph R. Phillips, who previously worked in the maritime industry, announced Wednesday he plans to retire next year. He will step down in the spring, as soon as the Maine State Museum Commission finds a successor or Phillips finds his “next adventure.”

Phillips was hired during another period of financial strain, in 1992.

“The museum commission had realized that due to major layoffs and cost-cutting, the next director needed to be somebody entrepreneurial,” he said. “They wanted the new director to start a friends group and to be as active as possible in non-state fundraising.”

His successor will face similar challenges. The museum’s staff peaked at 31 in 1990 but has since declined to 19, barely more than when the building opened in 1971. In the meantime, their responsibilities have expanded significantly, he said.

“The next director’s going to have to take it up to the next level,” Phillips said.

Raising money, planning and creating exhibits for Maine’s bicentennial in 2020 “will take all the time we have left between now and then,” he said.

Phillips, 61, grew up in central New York and attended that state’s maritime college. His first job was sailing the Clearwater, a sloop built as a historical replica in South Bristol.

Phillips later moved to Maine and worked at L.L. Bean, the Maine Maritime Museum and for a decade in a marketing position at Bath Iron Works before being hired at the Maine State Museum.

He said he is ready for a new challenge but plans stay in Maine.

During Phillips’ tenure, the museum led the excavation of Popham Colony in Phippsburg, the first English settlement in New England; protected the state’s collection of military flags and the State House Portrait Collection; and created the 5,600-square-foot Maine at Home exhibit on domestic life.

That was just one of many excellent temporary or long-term exhibits the museum has created in the past two decades, said Earle G. Shettleworth Jr., director of the Maine Historic Preservation Commission and the state historian.

“The museum has always been strong in being able to make these historical and cultural objects come alive, but I think that under J.R.’s tenure this has been a particular strength,” Shettleworth said.

The museum has also increased the size and quality of its collections at a time when the market for historical objects is becoming more competitive, Shettleworth said.

Maine Maritime Museum Director Amy Lent recalled that Phillips warmly welcomed her to the state more than five years ago and she said he has led great educational outreach at the Maine State Museum.

While people in Maine seem to value the museum, this economy is difficult for museums and other nonprofit groups, Lent said.

“That’s something that anyone running a museum in Maine or anywhere in the United States is dealing with,” she said. “How do we balance preserving our culture and heritage with the cost of doing that?”

Susan McMillan — 621-5645

[email protected]

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.