Marquette Maritime Museum: Secrets of the Sea

Anchored in History

by Cliff Duvernois

Marquette Maritime Museum with Hilary Billman

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You must visit the Marquette Maritime Museum. Hilary Billman discusses the museum’s efforts to restore trust with the community after financial mismanagement, Hilary’s journey from St. Louis to Marquette, and the challenges and successes of reviving the museum, including updates to exhibits and new additions like the opening of the second floor of the lighthouse for artifacts.


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Resilient Reflections: The Revival of Marquette Maritime Museum

In the heart of Michigan’s scenic Upper Peninsula lies Marquette, a town rich in maritime history. Its pivotal institution, the Marquette Maritime Museum, stands as a testament to perseverance and dedication. Recently, I had the pleasure of delving into this museum’s journey with Executive Director Hilary Billman for our Total Michigan podcast.

A Community Reclaimed

Hilary began by recounting the museum’s challenging past. The institution faced a significant setback when a former director embezzled funds, leaving it nearly bankrupt. The board, composed of dedicated locals, refused to let this deter them. They rebuilt the museum from the ground up, both financially and in reputation. “We really cleaned it up. Inside, outside looks fantastic,” Hilary shared. The work went beyond aesthetics. It was about restoring trust. “Tourists want to come here, and even local people want to come here,” she affirmed. This effort paid off. The museum now thrives, with strong board support and financial stability. ### A Personal Journey Hilary’s path to Marquette began far from Michigan. A native of St. Louis, Missouri, she journeyed through various states with her family before settling in Marquette. “We were looking for a great place to raise our children, and we found it in Marquette,” she said. Her husband’s job at Northern Michigan University brought them here, and the Museum offered her a place to apply her skills and passion.

Building from Nothing

Hilary’s experience in Wyoming was a crash course in museum management. She learned grant writing and the ins and outs of running a small-town museum. This experience was invaluable when she took over at the Maritime Museum. With no money in the bank and a tarnished reputation, the board needed someone resilient. Hilary fit the bill. “They were looking basically for somebody to come in and at first just keep the doors open,” she explained. Slowly, through grant writing, diligent work, and community engagement, they rebuilt the museum. Today, it stands stronger than ever.

Anchored in Local Heritage

The museum itself is a treasure trove of maritime history. “Marquette started out as a shipping port,” Hilary explained. The exhibits cover shipwrecks, lighthouses, and local fishing history. Key artifacts include an impressive collection of Fresnel lenses, paramount in lighthouse technology.

The Lighthouse Tours

Owned by the city of Marquette, the lighthouse became part of the museum’s tour offerings in 2000. Volunteers conduct three tours a day, Tuesday through Sunday. Hilary noted the second floor, recently refurbished, would soon offer new exhibit space.

Exhibits and Artifacts

Most artifacts come from private donations, and the museum rotates its exhibits to keep things fresh. One cherished exhibit includes a periscope from the USS Darter, a submarine commanded by Marquette native David McClintock. “You can look in the periscope and do a complete 360,” Hilary pointed out. Kids love it. Another significant exhibit focuses on Lake Superior shipwrecks, complete with maps and detailed histories. The museum’s collection is robust, owing much to community contributions over the years.

Admission and Accessibility

The museum is seasonal, open from mid-May to mid-October, closed on Mondays. However, special events and children’s workshops keep the place bustling year-round. They even offer winter events like “Maritime History on Tap” at Ore Dock Brewing Company—mixing maritime tales with a pint of local brew.

The Marquette Maritime Museum is more than an institution; it’s a symbol of resilience and community spirit. Thanks to Hilary Billman and the dedicated board, it has not only survived a tumultuous past but flourished, preserving and celebrating the maritime heritage of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. — Catch the complete interview and explore more extraordinary Michigander stories at