How a Museum Dies
April 28, 2014
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Austerity means losing things. The Anthropocene means that the world is not the one for which we are prepared. Both of these are meeting at New York’s South Street Seaport Museum (SSSM). James Lindgren has a new NYU Press book entitled Preserving South Street Seaport: The Dream and Reality of a New York Urban Renewal District. Disclaimer here: I am really psyched about this book. A brief quotation from page 135 will reveal why. In discussing the challenges in restoring the three-masted ship Wavertree, Lindgren writes:
“Few people realized how deep the Wavertree pit was. ‘Covered in construction materials,’ said young volunteer Philip Levy, ‘it was really a hulk.’ Deep below, ‘it was musty and very creepy. Older folks told stories about dead bodies hidden in the ship.’” SSSM was where my life in museum land began. I was a weekend and sometime afternoon volunteer interpreter starting at the age of 15 (pictured below on the Peking), and as I get older I realize more and more just how much my time on the ships, the dock, and the buildings nearby made me who I am. I was thrilled to have been asked by Jim to jot down my ‘seaport memoir’ for his book, and doubly thrilled to be now inscribed in the history of that wonderful place.
None of that happiness overshadows the fact that the SSSM is dying—killed by neglect, avarice, and climate change (itself a product of neglect and avarice). We are seeing now the narrowly avoided fate of the USS Olympia which the Philadelphia seaport claimed it could no longer afford to keep up and now there is an active effort to evict the SSSM and remake the whole historical area in the bland model of Manhattan’s vast creeping blandness. I find this particularly tragic after seeing the scale of UK preservation museum magic on display at Greenwhich’s Cutty Sark (which even a catastrophic fire did not stop) and Bristol’s wonderful Great Britain. Both are massively rebuilt, housed in accessible drydocks and are dry restored gems.
But New York has turned its back on SSSM and its ships, so no one can claim that its impending demise to be a shakedown. The whole neighborhood has been a problem area for decades and the mix of dreadful 1960s-to-today new construction, lack of a local population, and disasters have long made the area marginal to the life of the city. But if indeed the city looses SSSM, it will be the largest loss of its kind. A big factor though in all of this, and a reason that the UK does this so much better than does the US is real and cultural investment in maritime history. Ships are big, corrosion prone when in water, and often heavily regulated by the Coast Guard even when they are museums. Losing SSSM is tragic and hopefully avoidable, but its story touches on so much of what is happening right now.