Mystic Seaport ushers in a 'SeaChange' with new exhibit

Mystic — The opening of the new $11.5 million Thompson Exhibition Building was seen by Mystic Seaport as a transformational event, not only giving it a large, state-of-the-art building for new exhibits it could not accommodate in the past but making the museum a year-round destination.

So it’s only partly coincidence that the building’s first exhibit slated to open Dec. 10 is entitled “SeaChange,” a phase first mentioned in Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” and referring to a broad transformation.

The exhibit, which features 10 artifacts, shows off the building’s capacity to house large pieces, such as 31-foot open Umiak boat fashioned from stretched walrus skin, a 15-foot-tall painting that once graced the dining room of an ocean liner and an exquisitely detailed Chinese bed. Each artifact has 15-foot-tall video screens shaped like waves, sails and icebergs.

Looking through the museum’s vast collection, most of which has never before been on display, director of exhibits Elysa Engelman said designers were looking for items that were “visually appealing and drew you across the room.”

Those were then narrowed down to artifacts with compelling stories. The final choices had to transform a technology, culture, time period, a person or the sea, she explained Thursday as workers continued to build the exhibits.

Each of the artifacts has interactive components as well as a video screen in which experts answer commonly asked questions about the artifact and its importance. Museum interpreters also will be on hand in the exhibit hall to offer more detailed information about the items.

An exhibit on how a painting scheme, called Dazzle, was used to confuse World War I German U-boats targeting merchant ships features colored ship plans, large dazzle panels and a chance to look through a periscope into a seascape to see how the technique worked.

A massive photograph of a 19th-century San Francisco bar called the Cobweb Palace shows numerous pieces of scrimshaw displayed behind the bar. Those same pieces of meticulously detailed scrimshaw are now part of the exhibit. A computer imaging technique called photogrammetry allows visitors to use a touch screen to turn 3-D images of the pieces 360 degrees and zoom in for a closer look.

In another exhibit, the inside of a model of the HMS Burford from the 1740s can now be explored by visitors using a modern endoscope, which allows them to see the inside finishings for the first time since its builder enclosed it.

A 19th-century baby crib fashioned from a sea turtle shell by a captain in the Caribbean shows the transformation of attitudes from when there was a vibrant turtling industry to today, when turtles are a protected species. There are also letters from the turtling ship captain, who was away for long periods of time, to his daughter who slept in the crib.

Two of the more unusual exhibits include a coat rack fashioned from narwhal and walrus tusks owned by New London captain John Spicer in late 19th century as he hunted bowhead whales in the eastern Arctic. Engelman said the coat rack shows how the human mind and skills transformed a natural material.

“It's so compelling visually,” she said.

Another exhibit features the economic importance of guano — seabird feces — which was prized as a fertilizer and collected by ships in the Pacific after the Civil War. An original poster advertising “Soluble Pacific Guano,” video showing it being harvested and even a chance to smell artificial guano are part of the display.

The museum has spent the past 14 months developing the exhibit and began installing it immediately after the building’s grand opening in late September.

"SeaChange" will open to the public at 10 a.m. on Dec. 10 with a special museum members preview at 9 a.m. It will remain on display into the fall of 2017.

j.wojtas@theday.com

If you go

What: "SeaChange" exhibit

Where: Mystic Seaport's new Thompson Exhibition Building

When: It will open to the public at 10 a.m. Dec. 10, with a special museum members preview at 9 a.m. It will remain on display into the fall of 2017.

For more information: www.mysticseaport.org

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