Inhaling the salty sea air blowing across picturesque Mystic Seaport, Connecticut, one can easily imagine how it must have been almost 150 years ago – the creaking of ships, the shouts of sailors, and the sounds of tradesmen engaging in their crafts adding to the general cacophony.
Vivid as these images are, there never was a seaport on this site – Mystic Seaport is an imaginary place. According to Paul O’Pecko, Vice-President for Research Collections at Mystic Seaport, the Village was originally built as a backdrop for the ships, in order to give the site the look of a nineteenth century whaling or fishing village. The grounds themselves were those of an 1800s ship-building concern owned by the three Greenman brothers; fifty years after the Greenman shipyard ceased operations three local men, Carl C. Cutler, Charles K. Stillman, and Edward Bradley, incorporated the Marine Historical Association (MHA) on 25 December, 1929. The MHA set about preserving the legacy of America’s maritime connections: the Museum was first opened to the public in 1934; the last surviving whaleship, the Charles W. Morgan, arrived in November of 1941, opening for visitors in 1942; and the Village began taking shape in 1943. “Activists,” or interpreters as they’re now called, began working in the exhibits in 1955; the following decades saw the opening of the Planetarium, the building of the Henry B. DuPont Preservation Shipyard, the Williams College-Mystic Seaport Maritime Studies Program, and the opening of the Collections Research Center.
Covering nineteen acres and a multitude of experiences, exploring Mystic Seaport raises a serious question: Where to first? Slipping through the center entrance, away from the visitor center and typical introductory offerings, I found myself opposite Mystic Seaport’s most treasured exhibit, the Charles W. Morgan. What better place to start?
Built in 1841 at the shipyard of Jethro and Zachariah Hillman in New Bedford, Massachusetts, the 107 foot wooden whaleship Charles W. Morgan was named for her first owner. Eighty years of service saw the Morgan embark on thirty-seven whaling voyages across the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans in pursuit of sperm, right, humpback, and bowhead whales. These voyages could last for years, as the crew searched for the fifty-five whales or so needed to fill the casks in her hold with up to 90,000 gallons of oil.
Retired from whaling in 1921, the Morgan was brought to Mystic Seaport in 1941 and formally designated as a National Historic Landmark by order of the Secretary of the Interior in 1966.7 In 2014, the last remaining wooden whaleship in the world returned to the sea as the Morgan set sail on her 38th Voyage to New England ports-of-call and out onto protected whaling areas controlled by the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration. Once there, she was welcomed as an ambassador for the whales while simultaneously serving as an expression of what Mystic Seaport has to offer.
Boarding her in the morning, as I did, meant I was in time to watch her crew (dressed in modern uniforms, sadly) raise her sails for the day while singing an authentic rope-hauling song (for lack of a better term). One of the men, positioned at the head of the line and hauling on the rope as one would to raise a stage curtain, sang the first line of the song during a pause in the hauling, then he would pull down on the rope while the rest of the crew answered “Haul, away boys! Haul away!” while pulling the rope slack with him.
During the break between raising sails, the soloist (I really don’t know what to call him – that’s him pictured closest to the camera) was talking to some visitors on deck, saying that they tried raising and lowering the sails without any songs and it didn’t go nearly as well as when they did it to singing, so now they do it to original tunes just like the sailors of old. Seeing the sails go up was a real treat; in my humble opinion it’s watching the skilled shipwrights (both men and women – not historically correct but neither are the shorts/uniform shirts so whatever) go about their ‘chores’ on the ship, as well as engaging in little demonstrations throughout the day.
I really, really want them to be in period costume, a debate that apparently comes up every five years or so, where a new group comes in and argues for it while another group argues against it. The craftsmen in the various shops and stores are also in the regular uniforms seen on the shipwrights. Rebecca Bayreuther Donohue, foreman for the role-playing program and first person interpretation as well as costume manager, also wants to see more reproduction clothing utilized throughout the museum, though she admits that the costume shop couldn’t handle it in its current state. There are relatively few people actually out and about the grounds in costume, I saw one lady walking about in her period-appropriate clothing and one gentleman sitting in front of a building (though he was in his shirtsleeves). So while that was moderately disappointing, the actual shops, houses, and other buildings making up the Village were not.
There’s a smattering of craftsmen’s workshops along the waterfront, and the museum has helpfully placed a blue and yellow signal flag – meaning “let’s communicate” in maritime code – in front of those exhibits being staffed by professional educators.
I really liked the cooperage, where round wooden containers – generally called ‘barrels’ but properly termed casks – were manufactured. A cooper was a member of a whaleship’s crew, assembling pre-made casks as needed to hold whale oil, being responsible for preventing leakage, and keeping accurate measurements. The building currently hosting the cooperage was originally a barn on the property of Thomas Greenman, the youngest of the three Greenman brothers, though it was modified to include the workbench, a large hearth, a crane with a block and tackle and chine hooks, and a storage loft. It smelled really good in there from the firing of all those casks; it made for a rather pleasant sensory experience while the cooper present talked about creating each cask by hand and the duties of a cooper on board a whale ship.
Two buildings over is the Mystic Print Shop, built in 1952 as a memorial to Mystic businessman Andrew C. Colgrove. This one was pretty interesting as well, with the printer having laid out different tools and dies used in the trade and demonstrating how to use an authentic press.
I found that the most entertaining exhibits were those where the educator had something of interest to demonstrate. Most of them had someone there to answer questions, but people tend to have more questions when they see someone doing something that they can ask questions about.
This is especially true in that the majority of the buildings don’t have much in the way of signage; instead they rely on the educators present to impart pertinent information. In terms of sheer stuff and things to look at, Mystic Seaport has that in spades; and someone with an interest in, say, woodworking, would have plenty to see and talk about in the ship carver’s shop. Most people, however, come in, take a quick look around, and then wander off – which they also do when there is an abundance of signage, so no harm done in keeping the clutter (aka signs) to a minimum.
Unless one is planning on going to Mystic for two days (which is possible, if you get your admission ticket validated before you leave) I’d recommend the quick-look method, otherwise there just isn’t enough time.
Some of my quick-look highlights are the Sail Loft/Rigging Loft/Chandlery mashup, Stone’s Store, and the Drug Store, which may have been closed but the door was unlocked so I went in anyways. Each of these places had an interpreter present (except the Drug Store), but they weren’t actively engaging in a craft so these shops weren’t quite as exciting as the Cooperage and Print Shop.
Throughout the Village’s living-history exhibits are those buildings containing more gallery-esque fare. For example, the Mystic River Scale Model shows what the site looked like in the mid-1800s; over fifty feet long, it’s built at a 1/128th scale. In total, more than 250 detailed homes, shops, barns, lofts, and five local shipyards are dotted about the model. A sound-and-light show explains to visitors the goings-on in communities around the Mystic River between 1850 and 1880, when shipbuilding was at its peak.
Small buildings also hold displays on clamming, oystering, lobster, salmon, Toy Building, the Art Spot, boat exhibits, and the Brant Point replica Lighthouse. The last of these is a copy of the lighthouse at Brant Point, the marker at the entrance of Nantucket Harbor. Brant Point Lighthouse was built in 1746; Mystic Seaport’s 1966 version is based on the wooden replacement tower built in 1900, and holds an exhibit on lighthouse history
Not far from the Lighthouse is the Joseph Conrad, a school ship that was actually playing host to a group of students while I was visiting. The Joseph Conrad was built in Copenhagen in 1882 as the George Stage. All 111 feet of her was used to host eighty boys training to be Danish merchants; altogether, more than 4,000 cadets sailed in her from the time she was launched until 1934. After being sunk by a British freighter in 1905, she was raised and repaired to resume her duties, albeit under the British flag. In 1939 she was sold to the U.S. Maritime Commission where she continued to train young sailors, before becoming the property of Mystic Seaport by an act of Congress in 1967. Here she is both an exhibit and a training ship for the Mystic Mariner Program; during my visit her lower decks were closed to visitors as she was being used as dormitories for aspiring young sailors, both male and female.
Of course, all of these ships require a great deal of care, so in 1972, on the site of the Charles Mallory Shipyard from 100 years earlier, the Henry B. DuPont Preservation Shipyard was constructed. Now world-famous, the skilled staff of around twenty people work in a large main shop (complete with visitor’s gallery!) containing carpenter’s shops, an eighty-five foot spar lathe, a rigging loft, and a large open space for vessels brought in for repairs. There is also a paint shop, a lumber shed, and a sawmill.
In addition to the living history and small exhibit spaces, Mystic Seaport also boasts an impressive collection of original objects: Furniture, prints, paintings, ship plans, scrimshaw, manuscripts, models of ships and submarines, engines, textiles – just to name a few. Many of these items can be found tucked away in the Village and small exhibits, but many more have found a place in the impressive galleries located on the northern end of the site.
The Stillman Building’s “Voyaging in the Wake of the Whalers” is particularly impressive, utilizing the classic museum set-up of items in glass cases with state-of-the-art interactive technology.
The first floor is dedicated to all things whaling, from the whales to the whalers to the people back on land who benefited from them.
A person could spend a great deal of time in this gallery alone, like my sister Lydia who spent well over an hour reading all the text and utilizing the technology and video footage.
I was on a mission, however, so I didn’t read most of what was written or watch any of the footage, but I am a sucker for pretty things in glass cases and there were quite a few of those to draw and hold my interest (like this corset with whales on it and also in it).
The use of technology also merits its own sentence or two, because it’s some of the most inventive and engaging that I’ve seen – and I don’t mean to brag, but I have been to some really innovative museums in my lifetime.
The globe seen here was interactive, so you can see where different whales live and different voyages ships would take. I’m not super big into technology so I didn’t use it myself, but even I couldn’t resist trying to spot the ‘blow’ (what comes out of a whale’s blowhole) and identify the type of whale based on it. The blow was projected on a wall, a replica of the ring sailors would stand in while watching for blow and a handy identification chart were positioned in front of the wall so children (and limber adults) could climb into the ring and whale-watch like the sailors of old. (And no, I did not climb into the ring, because dignity. Also, I’d probably get stuck.)
Located on the second floor was all about the Benjamin F. Packard and other similar “Down Easters.” The definite star of this show is the complete cabin of the Packard, including much of the officer’s living quarters from the stern of the ship.
“Down Easters” from the late nineteenth century were built to carry cargo around Cape Horn between America’s Atlantic and Pacific ports. The Packard was built in 1883 and ran cargo of manufactured products from New York to San Francisco, then carried California wheat to Europe, before returning to New York with European goods before heading off around the Horn again.
In addition to the officer’s cabin, the second floor contained interesting bric-a-brac relating to ships, sea faring, and trade; I found the little models to be particularly fun.
Perhaps the most striking of the exhibits is the Figurehead Exhibit, located in the Wendell Building in the Quadrangle. The Wendell Building began as the machine shop of the Greenmanville Manufacturing Company textile mill; in 1934 it opened to the public as the first exhibit building at Mystic Seaport. After a remodel in 1949 it was dedicated to George Blunt Wendell, a clipper ship captain from Portsmouth, New Hampshire, whose collections are at Mystic Seaport.
After seeing all of these things, I was surprised to discover it was almost closing time and there were quite a few things I had not yet seen. Such was the case, however, owing to the size and scope of Mystic Seaport. I would have liked to be able to return for a second day, though it could not be as I was due to see Slater Mill the very next day.
But it wasn’t all sad times and frowny faces, as my family and I managed to get on the last ride of the day on the Liberty water taxi. There we learned more about the buildings lining the shore, the Morgan, and the smaller boats bobbing in the water.
We even got to see the students from the Joseph Conrad bringing in their little sailboats off the river, and, in a fitting farewell, the shipwrights were out on the rigging, tying up the sails for the night.
Susan Funk, Executive Vice President Chief Operating Officer for Program, told me that Mystic Seaport seeks to be a museum differently. Yes, they are an outdoor history museum, but there’s so much more to the site than that. They have a sailing program, a conservation shipyard, the Village (both living history and a place to maintain and hand down traditional skills), the collections, the galleries, and the higher education program. Mystic Seaport seeks to reach out to visitors, maximizing its range of offerings, the beauty of the space, the experiences, and expressing what the Museum has to offer. As Ms. Funk says, “We would like to be a place that brings people together [to] express their feelings about the sea. Even if people don’t identify themselves as maritime …. We’re trying to help people find those connections, too.” I certainly found mine.
Bayreuther Donohue, Rebecca. Interview by Rachel Polaniec. Mystic Seaport. 4 August 2016.
Funk, Susan. Interview by Rachel Polaniec. Mystic Seaport. 4 August 2016.
Mystic Seaport. “Charles W. Morgan.” Accessed 13 August 2016.
Mystic Seaport. “Figurehead of a woman, known as ‘Abigail.’” Museum sign.
Mystic Seaport Museum. “Mystic Seaport: A Visitor’s Guide.” Mystic Seaport: Mystic, CT, 2011.
Mystic Seaport. “Woman with a Comb.” Museum sign.
O’Pecko, Paul. Interview by Rachel Polaniec. Mystic Seaport. 4 August 2016.