Rarely am I impressed at any institution that plies me with food and alcohol.
This Tuesday, however, was a rare exception.
It may have been the salmon wraps…the booze…the gentle rolls of the floorboards (more on that later)…or a combination of the three. In any case, the new and improved South Street Seaport Museum is definitely worth a visit—both by your class and on your own.
“New and Improved?” you may ask. “But Mr. D, didn’t you toot SSSM’s horn way back when covering places for field trips?”
Well, things have changed since our last jaunt down to the waterfront.
Built in 1967 in an early 19th century building with musty smells and buckling floorboards (the floors alone gave you seasickness), the South Street Seaport Museum has been, at least in museum terms, something of a Mom-and-Pop operation. It focused mainly on maritime history and New York’s seaport life, and its one dank floor of exhibits brought mostly seafaring enthusiasts and wandering tourists enjoying a summer day at the corner of Fulton and South Streets.
Like the proverbial working girl on the docks, this museum has had a hard life. Apart from the odd school field trip, SSSM’s fairly seasonal clientele could not sustain the place financially. By last year, the museum was in so much debt that a third of the board resigned and half the staff were let go. When the New York Times uses the word “beleaguered” multiple times in describing its status, it can’t be good.
Enter the Museum of the City of New York.
MCNY has risen in recent decades to become one of the preeminent cultural institutions in New York. In my mind, no other museum connects with historians, educators, students, tourists and casual observers quite like it. So it made perfect sense that MCNY took over operations at South Street in the fall of 2011.
The folks uptown gave SSSM the royal treatment, taking charge of the building as well as the fleet of aging schooners, tugboats and barques sitting in the East River. Upon arrival on Tuesday for an Educator Open House (the free food and booze sealed the deal), I was floored at the finished product.
A one-floor dankhole has been expanded to three floors chock-full of exhibits and classroom space. Sixteen galleries now highlight different aspects of the city and the waterfront through a combination of artifacts, photographs, video and multimedia exhibits.
(By the way, the floorboards still buckle—it is an 1812 building after all.)
Some highlights include old Seaport favorites like model ships, old tools and seafaring paraphernalia that survived the overhaul. Other additions include an impressive photo exhibit of the Occupy Wall Street movement, exhibits covering products made in New York, and the highlights of MCNY’s Manahatta exhibit (it’s great that the light-up interactive map of Manhattan made its way downtown).
For school groups, MCNY installed two spacious classroom spaces, with plenty of primary artifacts, text sources and activities that connect students to New York’s maritime past. Furthermore, a number of school programs are available, including a New Amsterdam Walking Tour that used to be offered up at MCNY—guess it just makes more sense to base it here.
Finally, never fear…the Pioneer is still there! I had the pleasure of sailing on this 1885 schooner around New York harbor and even help hoist one of the sails (it inadvertently got me into a short sailing craze which future Mrs. D regrets). The old rust bucket is still there, and still available for tours of the harbor, focusing on history, ecology, commerce and navigation.
Yet all is not well on Schermerhorn Row.
The MCNY experiment is brief, and there is a real danger that the South Street Seaport Museum may not survive once its on its own again. They really need membership (there’s those financial problems again) and a steady stream of visitors to keep the place afloat.
Like it or not, New York’s history is tied intrinsically to the waterfront. We’re blessed not only to have a historic district like South Street, but also a museum that showcases New York’s deep connection to the sea. As commercial and crass as it is, the South Street Seaport offers the only glimpse of what New York looked like before the age of skyscrapers and subways, and the South Street Seaport Museum provides an important educational service in connecting New York’s past and present.
Make sure you give South Street a look, and not just during good weather. Bundle up and get your butt over to Fulton Street—either on your own, or with your class. If you can contribute to becoming a member, great…but come down even if you can’t.
And as always, since we crave attention as much as the aforementioned harbor chick, do tell them the Neighborhood sent you.
South Street Seaport Museum (phone # 212-748-8600) is located at 12 Fulton St., between Water St. and South St.
Take the 2,3, 4, 5, A, C, J,M or Z to Fulton Street Station, then walk down Fulton Street until you see the tall ships. It’s the marine-colored entrance on the right-hand side.