South Street Seaport Museum is adrift in the middle of a motionless sea, hoping and needing to be rescued. It was announced last week that the Museum of the City of New York (MCNY) would no longer run the seaport museum effective July 5th. MCNY had been a likely choice because both organizations focus on the history of New York which includes the importance of the harbor.
MCNY began their leadership of the beleaguered maritime museum in October 2011 with president Susan Henshaw Jones presiding over both organizations. The original agreement was to last for 18 months but was extended to 21 months. That would give the historic seaport time to stabilize. Ms. Henshaw Jones, the museum staff, and volunteers went right to work. Soon, repairs on the ships were getting done, bills were getting paid, and former members were coming back. By all accounts, it looked like the worst was over, but hurricane Sandy roared in and became the proverbial last straw.
South Street Seaport Museum was founded in 1967 by Peter and Norma Stanford. The location already had the historic Schermerhorn Row counting houses even though they needed restoration, the Fulton Fish Market, Belgian block paved streets, and a close-up view of the Brooklyn Bridge. South Street itself had been called the “Street of Ships” during the 19th century. What was needed were tall ships at the pier to give visitors a sense of what it was really like to be in the presence of masts up to 17 stories high and walk under the bowsprits extending above the street. The search for different types of vessels began and soon the museum had the largest privately owned fleet of historic ships in the country.
Each of the ships had a stellar career: The 1885 schooner Pioneer hauled sand and the 1893 Lettie G. Howard was a Gloucester fishing schooner; tugboats Helen McAllister (1900) and W. O. Decker (1930); Ambrose, the 1908 lightship at Ambrose Channel, the main shipping channel of the Port of New York and New Jersey; Marion M, a 1932 chandlery lighter used to carry drums of fuel and supplies to ships in the harbor. The largest ships in the collection were Wavertree, the 1885 wrought iron sailing ship used to transport cargo throughout the world, and Peking, the 1911 four-masted barque employed in the nitrate trade.
As the years went by, the original staff members retired and some of the newer ones did not focus on the best interests of the museum. Over time, the situation went from bad to worse. In addition to internal struggles, outside corporations wanted to build more skyscrapers which would have destroyed the entire point of the museum–a 19th-century waterfront and maritime history of New York. Community board meetings were filled to overflowing with volunteers and former employees, rallies were held in front of the ships, but the senior executives stayed away. Mr. Stanford, himself, wrote a letter to the editor of the New York Times regarding the situation.
When the Museum of the City of New York agreed to run the seaport museum in 2011, it brought about a collective sigh of relief. A number of things were accomplished under MCNY management including the re-opening of Bowne & Co.–the 19th-century print shop, public and educational programs, and exhibitions. Still, the fact remains that it will take years before FEMA funding is received. The galleries that sustained damage from Sandy were already closed in April.
There’s always hope. South Street Seaport Museum has faced challenges before and survived. The winds are changing–but for how long, and in what direction?
Cynthia Collins, Senior Museum Correspondent