Mystic Seaport plans busy 2022
Stonington — After bouncing back from the COVID-19 pandemic with strong attendance figures in 2021, Mystic Seaport Museum officials are planning to unveil two major new exhibitions this year, improved food offerings and events and more opportunities for vistors to get out on the Mystic River in boats.
Museum Seaport President Peter Armstrong, who took over the helm of the museum one year ago, outlined these and many other initiatives during a conversation in his office last week.
"We're getting back on our feet after COVID. We're trying to provide a better maritime experience each year," he said. "Our goal is to be the leading maritime museum in the United States."
Armstrong said the museum hosted 254,000 visitors in 2021, 4,000 more than in 2019, while much of the staff laid off during the pandemc has been rehired. He said employees are now being cross-trained in various historic crafts and skills to better staff the museum.
In addition, he said, the museum has boosted its minimum wage to $15 an hour, and employees, with the exception of senior staff, were given raises.
Armstrong said the marina was full with visiting boaters in 2021. That popularity has prompted the museum to install floating docks so it can now accommodate more boats this year.
With the hiring of a new catering company, the Galley restaurant will be renamed with new offerings, and the Spouter Tavern, part of the village, will be renovated and serve hot food.
Armstrong said the museum is placing an emphasis on becoming a food destination and will be hosting more food-related events as well as concerts, which were affected by the pandemic.
The museum store has been refurbished, the Anchor Cafe is now located where the bakery once was, and the bookstore has been expanded. Armstrong said the goal is to make the latter the preeminent maritime bookstore.
He added that last year the museum replaced the roofs of 14 buildings, and maintenance work will continue, including improving handicapped access to many of the historic buildings such as by improving the walkway around the village so visitors with wheelchairs and assistive devices can navigate what is now the now a dirt and cobblestone path.
Armstrong said more work is being done to digitize its collection of photographs and film and other artifacts so they can be accessed online.
"A lot of it is behind closed doors now," he said.
A more diverse story
Armstrong said the museum will continue its work to tell a more diverse story of the nation's maritime history "so all stories are told and heard."
As part of that effort, the museum has launched its new Center for Experiential Education, which will offer underserved youth exposure to maritime programs and skills using the resources of the museum, its boats and riverfront location. The museum has partnered with New London Youth Services to launch the program with youth in that city in kindergarten through 12th grade.
In February the museum will celebrate Black History Month with a host of activities such as a Feb. 23 webinar entitled "African Americans in Astronomy," while all month long museum visitors can hear a talk aboard the whaling ship Charles W. Morgan about Lewis Temple, an African American blacksmith and abolitionist, who designed an iron harpoon that revolutionized the whaling industry.
It is also partnering with Discovering Amistad to further racial justice and expose students to contributions made by African Americans in U.S. maritime history.
Armstrong said plans to demolish the Latitude 41 restaurant and build an upscale 26-room hotel and restaurant will begin in the spring of 2023 with an opening in 2024. He said the restaurant, which is booked for events such as weddings, will continue to operate this year.
The shipyard, meanwhile, is busy with maintenance work on the Mayflower II, which was restored at the museum over a multiyear period before the pandemic. The shipyard also is replacing the deck of the submarine Nautilus at the Submarine Force Museum in Groton and refurbishing a floating restaurant from New York City. The steamboat Sabino will continue to operate with two generators but maintains its working steam engine.
Armstrong said the Sabino and vessels such as Liberty and the museum's fleet of sailboats and rowboats are part of an effort "to get as many people out on the water as possible" when they visit.
Two new exhibitions in Thompson Building
The first new exhibition is "Story Boats," which will feature 18 boats with the best stories from the museum's collection of almost 500 vessels, many of which are stored in the Collections Research Center and have not been on display before.
They include President Franklin D. Roosevelt's sloop Vireo, a boat owned by author John Steinbeck and the Analuisa, a 30-foot fishing boat that ferried two groups of Cuban immigrants to Florida in 1994. The boats will be accompanied by related artifacts such as a first edition of Steinbeck's "Cannery Row." The exhibition is slated to open Memorial Day weekend.
The second exhibition is titled "Sargent, Whistler, and Venetian Glass: American Artists and the Magic of Murano." It is a traveling exhibition featuring 140 objects from a Smithsonian American Art Museum exhibition that will be shown at only three sites across the country. Armstrong said many of the works are owned by private individuals, "so you don't get to see them."
The glassmakers of Murano, a series of islands near Venice that has been a glass-making center since the middle ages, began to specialize in delicate, colorful and complex hand-blown vessels between 1860 and 1915, according to the Smithsonian. This came at a time when Venice was gaining popularity with tourists and American painters, and their patrons visited the glass furnaces to see the work. The works often featured maritime subjects and made the transatlantic journey from Murano to American homes and museums. It is scheduled to open Oct. 15 and continue through Feb. 26, 2023.
The museum hopes the exhibition will mirror the popularity of its blockbuster J.M.W. Turner painting exhibition two years ago.
Armstrong said some past museum visitors do not return because they feel they have seen everything.
"We're not the same. You have to come back and see what we're doing," he said. "We're no longer a passive collector of history. We're an active participant in it. You'll be involved and more immersed in the experience than in the past."