Book offers exploration of America's 'Great Maritime Museums'

One shouldn't judge a book by its cover, the old adage goes. Or by its title, perhaps.

"Preserving Maritime America: A Cultural History of the Nation's Great Maritime Museums" is interesting but, for the most part, only concerned with a tiny part of America. Five of the six museums it focuses on are on the Eastern Seaboard; four are clustered in the Northeast with one token institution on the West Coast.

You will not find the Great Lakes system in these pages, nor the St. Lawrence Seaway or Erie Canal that opened up the lakes to global trade. Nor are you likely to find anything about the mighty Mississippi or Missouri rivers or the Gulf of Mexico. There is little of indigenous watercraft, and only casual mentions of America's great military vessels, including the most famed of all: The USS Constitution.

That's because author James M. Lindgren, who has published many historical books and is a history professor at the State University of New York at Plattsburgh, "decided to focus on saltwater museums and the history of their regions," he wrote in an email interview Wednesday. "... I made the editorial judgment that the book, which is a first-of-its-kind study, could better serve my audience by telling an in-depth story of the MAJOR museums on the east and west coasts and how those Americans interacted with the world."

What readers will find is many pages devoted to New England's heritage of whaling and shipping. Luckily for us here in southeastern Connecticut, most of the featured institutions are a day trip away, and our Mystic Seaport Museum gets its very own chapter. Joining Mystic are museums in Salem and New Bedford, Mass., the South Street Seaport in New York, the Mariners' Museum in Virginia and the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park in California.

"I saw that each of these six museums began with global aspirations — to tap into far-reaching markets and resources and bring the wealth home," Lindgren says.

From curios to conservation

The approach of this book — from the perspective of historical societies, museum curators and patrons, as well as businessmen wishing to preserve the legacy that propelled them to wealth — is certainly unique. Be aware that it is not light reading; the sheer volume of research that went into it is evident on every page.

"In comparison with traditional history museums, maritime museums are unique because of their scope, collections, and importance have been largely unrecognized by landlubbers," Lindgren writes in the introduction. "Though '95 percent of what comes and goes to this country comes and goes by ships,' said a U.S. Coast Guard admiral, most Americans have little experience — personally or academically — with the economic, political, and cultural forces that have defined global maritime society."

Lindgren says he's "spent the last 25 years repeatedly visiting these coastal museums." That places him in a strategic position to tackle several age-old problems: How to capture the imagination of tourists to meet the operating budget while maintaining historical integrity; how to shift paradigms while being rooted in heritage; how to remain relevant amid cultural development and divergence.

I find this book most interesting in that last respect. Class tensions ripple through these pages, from the wealthy whaling ship owners to the sailors recruited by "landsharks" to man those ships amid squalid conditions. Racial tensions are highlighted, too: On the ships; in the coastal towns divided by residents and worldly visitors;, and in the way that museums and their visitors perceived cultural items from far-off places. It is especially evident in the selective ways that New England has chosen to remember its own past: glorifying the Yankee sailor while burying in obscurity the black and brown crew members — without whom sea-related industries could not have functioned.

Lindgren begins with the East India Marine Society, now the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass. Established in 1799, it is the oldest institution in the book. It started, in true Age of Enlightenment fashion, with a cabinet of curiosities that its members filled with items they brought back from their voyages. Most of the museums in the book, including the East India Marine Society, were intended to memorialize the culture in which they were created and to educate their community about the world through the lens of these curiosities.

This is an era of ever-shrinking grants, and interest in traditional museums has dwindled. To stay solvent, the featured institutions have had to reinvent themselves. They've had to adopt different, more inclusive approaches to their subject matter and wean themselves off of reliance on government funding and school field trips. Even now, these venues are trying to scratch out a future for themselves — with at least one relying on nonmaritime exhibits to draw in enough revenue to maintain its nautical collections.

"I've learned that there is one rule for museums: Change or become irrelevant. Museums must speak to many different people in our current generation," Lindgren says.

"These museums are NOT places for Americans to escape into the past; instead they are ways to learn history and imagine a different future," he says.

One interesting but noteworthy shift he has documented is the public attitude toward whaling. Romantic images of men struggling against the monsters of the deep have given way to acknowledgement that humankind, in its monstrous push for wealth and dominance, has nearly depleted the populations of whales. Many of these museums now push to preserve the creatures' very existence.

"While realizing that earlier people faced often formidable problems and their actions reflected that context, we have today seemingly more pressing challenges: conserving the oceans and their habitat, building a working society out of even more diverse people and cultures, crafting an economy that reflects both those environmental and human needs, and planning a better future for our children and grandchildren," Lindgren writes. "Each maritime museum must address these concerns in its own way."

Still, there is an underlying theme that threads its way through the book: These museums could teeter on extinction just like the whales. Many such institutions have folded; their collections merging with those still solvent. Other collections have disappeared perhaps forever, dispersed into private hands. Many of these museums have had to watch as their communities, like New London, have lost once-prized historical structures to the wrecking ball in the name of renewal.

Focus on Mystic

As mentioned, there is a chapter devoted to Mystic Seaport. That is to be expected, as it is arguably the most famous maritime museum of them all and has served as a big inspiration to similar museums. It is interesting that Lindgren notes how some have referred to Mystic as an example of "phony seaports" that have been "raking in the visitors" away from the "real thing."

But Mystic Seaport founder Carl Cutler "was interested in not only mid-nineteenth-century, globe-trotting clipper ships, but early twentieth-century, cargo carrying freighters; they represented America's cultural foundations, economic strength, and (he hoped) future," Lindgren says. "He regretted that America's commercial fleet was dramatically shrinking in the 1920s and 1930s; he thought that Mystic Seaport could reverse the trend."

"The Mariners' Museum in Newport News, VA, stemmed from a similar motivation," he writes. "For them, the sea defined almost everything important in life."

Additionally, Mystic Seaport's Charles W. Morgan features prominently. The last surviving wooden whaling ship comes up again and again as Lindgren discusses preservation of vessels themselves, and of course the ship's historic role in Mystic and, before that, New Bedford, Mass. A photo of the Morgan is featured on the book's cover.

While I find the title to be misleading, "Preserving Maritime America" is an interesting — and insightful — look at the establishment of six of America's nautical museums. It was No. 1 on bookauthority.org's "26 Best New Cultural History Books to Read in 2020." It's a particularly good read for those in the business of education and preservation. And it also has something to offer anyone in the realm of cultural tourism and related nonprofits, if only to see what strategies have worked well elsewhere.

Finally, if you're interested in New England's whaling heritage, this book offers a particularly intriguing perspective from which to approach it. I certainly find myself planning visits to several of these museums.


If you go

Who: Author James M. Lindgren

What: Discusses and signs copies of his latest book, "Preserving Maritime America: A Cultural History of the Nation's Great Maritime Museums"

When: 1-3 p.m. Saturday

Where: Bank Square Books, 53 West Main St., Mystic

How much: Free

For more information: (860) 536-3795

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