When Mystic Seaport Museum was left with a hole in its schedule, due to travel restrictions relating to the pandemic, the people there did what many of the rest of us did when we were stuck at home: They took a closer look at what they had right around them.
“We started to think about who we are at our core and who we’ve been for the last 90 years. From the beginning, we’ve saved not only important boats, but also the tools use to make and repair these boats, and the skills required to do that,” says Elysa Engelman, an exhibit director at Mystic. “In our shipyard and on our staff, and the people we work with, we have tremendously deep knowledge and skills when it comes to building and preserving and using these boats.”
The new exhibit she developed, A Way with Wood: Celebrating Craft shows visitors how “one of nature’s most malleable materials,” wood, is transformed into “objects of utility, art, and beauty.”
The main exhibit is on display in the Collins Gallery in the Thompson Exhibition Building, a work of art in wood itself. Visitors also are welcome to visit the top decks of the historic ships that are on the grounds, the shipyard in the historic village, and they can take free river cruises on the launch Liberty, and take free rides on some of the smaller boats in the livery. There are also other family activities available, and food and coffee in the new coffee bar, Social, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., which is in the Thompson Exhibition Building lobby at the museum, located at 75 Greenmanville Avenue, Mystic.
“What I love about this project is that it highlights one of the things we do best, in that we are one of the few museums where we can build things that go on the water and people can use them,” she says. “We build and preserve these vessels, but we also put them to use, we don’t lock them away.”
Shipwrights from the museum’s Henry B. duPont Preservation Shipyard are featured as part of the exhibition, along with riggers, and the maintenance crew. They will be restoring and building boats as visitors watch. The first project is a restoration of the Afterglow, a tender to the museum’s schooner Brilliant. Then the crew will complete the restoration of the Woods Hole spritsail cat Sandy Ford. And then they will build a new dory for the L.A. Dunton. The focus will be on using hand tools, and little to no power tools will be used.
As the shipwrights do their work, there is another section where outside artisans will work on projects and share their craft with visitors, featuring a variety of different disciplines including furniture making, sculpture, and model making. And, there will be rotating displays of objects that include rare tools, unique carvings, small boats, and other artifacts from the museum’s collections, all focused on the way wood is brought to life in a variety of projects by the artisan’s hand.
Emphasizing the Outdoors
Museum Director Steve White says the exhibit is just one example of how the museum is adapting to this new era. He says the museum grounds, with its expansive outdoor spaces, are ideally suited to the limitations created by the pandemic.
“We are in a position to emphasize the outdoor qualities of the museum and the safety that goes along with being outdoors during a pandemic,” he says. “Safety and the outdoors have always gone hand-in-hand with us. But how we are redoubling up on safety to make sure human interaction is safe. We’ve taken it cautiously. People can enjoy the exhibit, and then enjoy the riverside setting. Bring their family. Wear masks. Practice social distance. People have been so supportive of that, and they seem grateful for the opportunity to be outside and together…We’ve returned to some of the fundamental outdoor activities that, you could argue, had been replaced by other distractions.
“Scavenger hunts, making paper airplanes, and boat rides are good for the soul and for the family. It’s really been quite nice,” he says. “Normally, in past years, we rent out rowboats and small boats so families can go out in the water. We decided that this was a special opportunity to make these boat rides free to the public. Also included in admission is a free boat ride in the Liberty. It’s been incredibly popular. Maybe because it’s free or just the environment we’re in, and people understanding we should embrace the air and just slow down. Just taking a deep breath, where it’s safe to do so.”
He says the new exhibit is part of the re-imagining and thinking about what the museum can do that adds value to visitors’ lives, and what it can to do help sustain people during these difficult times.
A Way with Wood: Celebrating Craft was developed when another exhibit, SALT: Tracing Memories, an installation by Japanese artist Motoi Yamaoto, had to be canceled due to travel restrictions relating to the pandemic. That exhibit has been tentatively rescheduled for spring 2021.
“Oh, we were really looking forward to that,” says White of the Salt exhibit. “We wanted to create a ramping system inside the gallery, at eye level, 12 to 16 feet above the floor.”
When it became clear that exhibit would not happen, the museum held a Zoom meeting to talk about what it could do in that space.
“And we said, ‘What we know best is wood,’” White says. “And so, we’ve got these artisans already. Let’s bring them into the gallery and put them on restoration live. You get to talk with the shipwrights. You get to stand on the ramping system and watch them do the work. There are demonstrations in the corner of the exhibit, with a wood carver to help you understand the tools.”
At the soul of the exhibit is a material that is central to much of what the museum does and stands for, White says. “It’s so elemental. It’s wood,” he says.
A Bright Spot
The launching of the exhibit has been a bright spot in an otherwise difficult time for the museum. Like many businesses, it had to lay off many people.
“That was really, really tough” to let go of so many good people, White says. “Hopefully, as commerce returns we will be able to hire back, and more.
“In the meantime, we are operating on a skeleton crew. And we have a lot of people volunteering. And staff members leaving their desks and going out to support the exhibits,” he says. “We’re all pitching in.”
The museum’s strong endowment should help it weather this storm, he says.
“So we have that foundation, but we are running at a deficit. Fortunately, we have a strong relationship with our bank, so we’re taking on debt while we try to get to the other side of this,” he says.
As Mystic Seaport Museum finds its way forward, it is also celebrating its 90th year.
“And we will celebrate that anniversary,” White says. “The museum was created during the Great Depression. We’ve survived World Wars, and recessions, and we’ll survive this, too.”
The key will be to keep things running while not depleting resources, he says.
“That’s one of the challenging things for a museum. You don’t just close the door and walk away. You have to protect the museum and its resources,” he says. “We maintain a large staff just to manage our collection. Even without people coming to the museum, we have to care for the museum and its collections. There are two million objects in our collections. So it’s not just about closing the doors and turning off the lights. We have all these other obligations, to maintain this collection for the public interest. The public trusts us to take care of the objects.”
And so, for this exhibit to feature those who are caring for the collection, is doubly special, he says.
“We don’t have to bring in anybody special. Our own staff are the stars. It features our collections and our staff. And how lucky we are. It’s like a chef being showcased on a cooking show.”
‘They are Mystic Family’
Engelman says she loves the chef/cooking show analogy.
She says one of the stars of the show is Walter Ansel, the lead shipwright. He’s a second-generation boat builder who started working at the museum when he was 14 years old. He’s also the son of the legendary Willits Ansel, shipwright and author who also worked at Mystic. And for a while, Walter Ansel’s daughter, Evelyn, also worked at Mystic, on the restoration of the Charles W. Morgan.
“She was third generation,” says Engelman.
“Walter is wonderful, warm, generous human being,” Engelman says. “So they are Mystic family.”
Ansel worked with the exhibits team and the collection team to pick out historic tools, including planes, and chisels, and levels that mirror those he has in his own personal took kit, a kit that goes with him from job to job. “You can see Walter using his tools, and at the same time you can look at the historic displays,” she says. “And his took kit is modeled on his father’s. Like a chef, you model what your choices are, based on the person you’ve learned from.”
Others featured include Scott Noseworthy, the shipyard maintenance supervisor who is the lead sawyer, volunteer coordinator, machine operator, machinist, mechanic, and welder, and rigger Sarah Clement, who describes her work as part physics and part art.
“Our work is functional and beautiful,” she says in materials developed by the museum as part of the display.
Engelman says she is pleased with how the exhibit plays well with the gallery itself, and the shipyard, and the other resources on the museum grounds.
“This display connects so strongly with all of it. You can go down to the shipyard and see the other projects. You can go out on the boats. The gallery is a great launching point. Once you start looking for wood elsewhere on the grounds, you’ll see it everywhere.”