BATH — The Maine Maritime Museum’s historic collection of Maine-made watercraft will finally get the exhibition space it deserves.

Museum officials Saturday announced the award of a $197,582 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to cover the cost of creating “visible storage” for 117 of the museum’s 130 boats.

The funds will enable the museum to bring those difficult-to-handle objects up to the same curatorial standards as the rest of its 20,000 historic artifacts. When open for viewing, the collection will educate patrons about Maine’s role in the sea change the nation experienced as it passed from the 19th century’s resource-based economy into the 20th century’s modern industrial world.

The boats are stored in buildings on the museum’s Kennebec River waterfront next door to Bath Iron Works. The money will be used to improve those storage areas by adding lighting, flooring, safety rails, steps and access points. When the three-year project is completed it will result in a fourfold increase in publicly accessible space devoted specifically to the care of historic Maine watercraft. Only 20 of the boats now are on exhibit.

“The small-craft collection is one of the rare jewels of this museum, but they have been hidden away,” museum executive director Amy Lent told the gathering. She added that the museum attracts 45,000 visitors each year.

Curator Nathan Lipfert said the collection was the largest in New England and the largest collection of boats built and used in a single state, Maine. Among them are lobster boats, early motor launches, canoes, racing boats, lake guide boats, the only surviving Ogunquit dory, a 1916 Wilbur Morse-built Friendship Sloop, a pre-World War II log-driving bateau used on the Dead River and a 1904 launch with a Maine-built Knox single cylinder engine. There is also N.C. Wyeth’s 1928 lobster boat that is featured in his paintings and those of his son, Andrew Wyeth.

“I’m thrilled we’re going to be taking better care of this collection,” Lipfert said.

Commissioner of the Department of Economic and Community Development John Richardson said the project will “help us understand our heritage.” Richardson described the museum as an integral part of the state’s tourism economy and said its boat-building school provided opportunities to the state’s residents to acquire the skills needed to fill jobs in the boat industry. He said his son John was a graduate of the program and his passion for boats resulted in finding a job at the Maine State Pier.

“This museum has given people a great feel for boats and our heritage here in Maine,” he said. “This is about leveraging our young talent to get them more excited about this museum.”

Vaughn Stinson, chief executive officer of the Maine Tourism Association, said the grant would improve the museum’s status as a “cultural heritage attraction.” He said tourists interested in cultural heritage locations spend more money than others and are responsible in large part for the $400 million spent annually in Maine. A recent survey indicated that 73 percent of tourists are interested in cultural events.

“This museum project [is] something historically that no one else in our area has,” Stinson said. “We have an area that is known for its safety and it friendliness. Cultural heritage tourism is the key to drawing visitors and it creates higher visitor satisfaction.”

Curator of Boats Chris Hall said he was looking forward to bringing the boat collection to the public. He said the boats had been kept away from the public for too long and that it was time to bring them to light.

“Keeping a collection is a bit like running a bed and breakfast but the guests never leave,” Hall said. “Like most bed and breakfast guests they’re quite easy to talk to but you have to make the effort.”