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Museum on the Mend: Saving the South Street Seaport

Jan 28, 2012

by Chappell Ellison handmade and vintage goods

Located on the southeast tip of Manhattan, the South Street Seaport was once the site of an active port, where goods from all over the world landed on our shores. In its heyday during the outbreak of the American Civil War, the Seaport was a raucous place, filled with culture clashes, vice and priceless cargo. That’s why it’s bizarre to see the port in its current state; gone are the fish markets and dry goods stores of the 19th century, replaced by mall retailers like Guess and Baby GAP. Now admitting that their attempt to revamp the port and create a shopping destination in the 1980s was a failure, New York City is instituting yet another makeover for the financially troubled area. The first signs of this effort is found in the South Street Seaport Museum, inconspicuously tucked into the a row of shops. Founded in 1967, the museum has undertaken a bold plan, hoping to not only save themselves, but save the entire port.

After closing for a year of renovations, the South Street Seaport Museum has reopened with a new mission to attract as much support as possible. The New York Times reported that prior to the renovation, the museum’s board members had to provide personal loans just to cover rent and utilities. Last September, the Museum of the City of New York supplied a $2 million grant with the assistance of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation. After that, the mission was clear for the museum board members: the failing institution needed the fastest makeover possible. “We wanted to try to become an overnight cultural destination,” said Susan Henshaw Jones, the president and director. But the grant lasts only so long; after 18 months, city officials will determine whether or not they will continue supporting the museum. Part of the museum’s new objective is to speak to a broader audience. Once the sole purveyors of local maritime history, the Seaport Museum now features exhibitions that skew towards a more general history of New York City.

Chappell Ellison

Left: One of many in the museum's miniature ship collection. Right: A view of pre-settled Times Square.

The Seaport Museum leads with what it knows best; the first gallery is filled with ships in bottles, hung from the gallery ceiling. The display allows visitors to get as close as possible to the tiny treasures. Having never closely examined a ship in a bottle, I marveled at the precious constructions — tiny paper sails attached to masts no bigger than toothpicks. A group of young boys ran around the gallery, selecting their favorites and christening the mini-boats with names. Their fantasy shipyard game was cut short when they discovered a covert display in the corner of the gallery, revealing the secret to how craftsmen place ships inside bottles. To discover the truth, visitors lift a black curtain covering a bottled ship in progress. I won’t reveal the secret, but I’m sure a clever Google search would satisfy the curious.

Now that the Seaport Museum is controlled by the Museum of the City of New York, the institution faces the possibility of an even greater identity crisis. When pursuing a few of the gallery spaces, it was obvious that a few exhibits were the direct influence of the Museum of the City of New York. “Mannhatta: Manhattan in 1609,” for example, transforms a room into a pre-civilization panorama of New York City. Though I was briefly transfixed by one of the six, back-lit panels that showed an untouched, tree-filled view of what is now known as Times Square, the panorama didn’t make sense; though beautiful, a view of Manhattan in 1609 is too much of a departure from the original, 19th-century, historical maritime focus of the museum.

Chappell Ellison

“Made in New York,” a new exhibition that features recent works of local designers, takes up residence on two gallery floors. Against the background of raw, exposed brick walls and low ceilings, the pieces are incredibly stark; a machine-cut, green metal bench looks alien when compared to the exposed, hand-layed brick walls of the museum. Though locally sourced and designed furnishing should be celebrated, their presence in the gallery was slightly odd. After walking through rows of ships in bottles, the sight of a pink stool and a Danish modern coffee table was jarring. Curiously, another room takes on local fashion design. The works of designers such as Laura Siegel and Fabiola Arias are on display, in a room filled with clothed mannequins and an antique sewing machine. Again, the exhibition is clean, beautiful and worthwhile, but appears to belong somewhere else, away from the grit and history of the seaport.

Not enough space was allotted for the artifacts and reflection of life on the South Street Seaport in the 19th century. What few items the museum exhibited were fascinating; a large, round wooden table with teacups and measuring devices resting on its surface reveal America’s early obsession with tea. Known as cupping, expert tea tasters would sit around this table, testing teas brought intro port from England and east Asia. The tabletop spun in a lazy susan-style manner, giving all sippers ample access to the steeped leaves. Yet my favorite exhibition in the museum that most poetically sums up 19th century maritime life is found in a room where ship building tools overwhelm the eye. A huge tabletop, tilted toward the viewer, yields hundreds of ship building tools, hermetically organized. While I was overwhelmed with the sheer aesthetic beauty of the tools, I also realize their original function is totally negated by the display; exactly how does that funny, cork-screw doodad work?

Chappell Ellison

A table filled with salvaged ship building tools.

Perhaps the greatest aspect of the museum is the building itself; as I walked through the galleries, the low ceilings and small windows that pierced the north and south walls recapture the 19th century spirit that quietly escaped the port over the years. The floors are uneven, groaning under the lightest of footsteps, a charm that flavors the entire experience. But I’m not totally sold on the move away from maritime history. While expanding the museum’s scope of offerings will captivate a broader audience, it risks covering the same ground as many other institutions in the city’s highly saturated museum scene. But the point, for now, is to get people engaged once again. “The first thing every New Yorker says is, ‘I know the Seaport Museum,'” said exhibition designer Wendy Evans Joseph. “‘I was there 20 years ago.'” The seaport has a long voyage ahead of itself; while the museum may attract new visitors, the entire area will require much more support and creative thinking to once again become a destination.


  • BabbidgePatch

    BabbidgePatch said 8 years ago

    Sounds like a delightful muesum to explore - thanks for sharing!

  • myvoicecolor

    myvoicecolor said 8 years ago

    This is so interesting! Thank you!

  • hmmills

    hmmills said 8 years ago

    As always...great post

  • FreshFromtheFlame

    FreshFromtheFlame said 8 years ago

    Interesting to read your pros and cons. Still seems like a very interesting place to visit for many reasons. I do think the table with the tools is beautiful.

  • cottonbirddesigns

    cottonbirddesigns said 8 years ago

    Interesting article!

  • ZenBrush

    ZenBrush said 8 years ago

    And the New Amsterdam market in the old fish market should keep things interesting down there.

  • TheIDconnection

    TheIDconnection said 8 years ago

    Great read!

  • TwinkleStarCrafts

    TwinkleStarCrafts said 8 years ago

    I visited the South Street Seaport Museum prior to its renovation. At the time, I also thought that not all of the items/exhibits seemed to 'fit' the museum, but that the buildings, ships in the harbor and the temporary exhibit that initially drew me there (many of FDR's model ships) had me mesmerized. I could easily imagine the unrest of the 1800s, the fish market and its wearied workers. What a shame it would be to rob the public of that feeling if the museum were to close.

  • amysfunkyfibers

    amysfunkyfibers said 8 years ago

    How cool, I would love to visit both the historical areas, and the made in New York gallery. There is something for everyone!

  • umaslady

    umaslady said 8 years ago

    Great article! ^_^

  • tardisjournal

    tardisjournal said 8 years ago

    love it!

  • MegansMenagerie

    MegansMenagerie said 8 years ago

    Nice read! Thanks! =)

  • ChenaysBaubles

    ChenaysBaubles said 8 years ago

    Museums should stick to their missions, but if they feel they need to change their professional direction, than that should be addressed and a new mission should be written up. I wonder if that was done, or if these new and seemingly out-of-place exhibits were just added in. It makes me wonder what the majority of the visitors are saying and if they approve of the new exhibits.

  • SouthernBelleOOAK

    SouthernBelleOOAK said 8 years ago

    How sad it would be for this wonderful museum to close. The Age of Sail was such an important time in the birth of America and the growth of Manhattan. Perhaps setting aside a room where workshops would be held and having roving storytellers wander the halls in costume, could attract more visitors. Can you imagine visiting a museum where you could attend a workshop to make a ship in a bottle and leave with a tiny version of one or even learn the art of Scrimshaw, an art form that originated in America? Ahh...must be the child in me still dreaming.

  • VoleedeMoineaux

    VoleedeMoineaux said 8 years ago


  • vynsimplicity

    vynsimplicity said 8 years ago

    I Loved this line " the Seaport was a raucous place, filled with culture clashes, vice and priceless cargo." So poetic and descriptive.. really paints a picture :) It is sad to see the culture and personality drained our of places as such, chain stores, as lovely as they are depict faces of stardom but don't bring back the warmth of a street filled with passionate local vendors selling their works or life's skills of fishing, farming and worksmithing. We can easily look at some of our main street today and loose dight of the beauty they were before connivence set in. As a whole I would love to walk down a street the way it was when my Dad was a child, see the candy stores & coffee shops of yesteryear. I just need that I my life, to slow it down a bit. A place to escape to what was. As proven in the popularity of little house on the Prairie.. I think a lot more people need that too ! Bring back the family friendly version of a place, filled with culture, pubs and priceless cargo.

  • maggiesraggedyinn

    maggiesraggedyinn said 8 years ago

    As someone who has run a musem for the last 12 years and dealing with financial difficulties and little support, this is an encouraging read. Bravo for all their hard work.

  • tigersanddragons

    tigersanddragons said 8 years ago

    I hope they can make it work. Certainly I can understand the need to upgrade the displays to get people to come back. We took some family members to our local museum and almost nothing had changed since I'd last been there twenty years before. Some of the wording on the displays about native peoples were still culturally insensitive, and that at least could of been updated since they was written in the 1970s.

  • MishaGirl

    MishaGirl said 8 years ago

    Very interesting. I hope they can achieve their goals.

  • VintageScraps

    VintageScraps said 8 years ago

    My husband and I just returned from a stay in Charleston, where we slept in an historic inn, and toured the historic homes. The efforts to save the Seaport area underscores our thinking we had on our trip: every penny spent in these areas is more than worth it! These buildings and what they hold are not only our past, they are priceless pieces of art.

  • Iammie

    Iammie said 8 years ago

    Interesting blog!

  • ahemvintage

    ahemvintage said 8 years ago

    Thanks so much for the article. I'm definitely going to check this out.

  • haniver6

    haniver6 said 8 years ago

    Well-written account of what will probably be the tragic end of the South Street Seaport Museum. America has totally ignored its maritime heritage for so long that it doesn't surprise me that NYC doesn't understand how to showcase its remarkable heritage. Very, very sad.

  • elizasteindesigns

    elizasteindesigns said 8 years ago

    Full disclosure here: I was a volunteer at the South Street Seaport Museum before they reopened--- I cleaned those ships in bottles! I thought the museum did a pretty good job of weaving together Seaport history, general maritime history, and contemporary art, especially considering their restrictions on time and budget. One of the 15 galleries has a stunning photography series of ships being dismantled at a port in Bangladesh. On the top floor, you can see old films of the Seaport by Thomas Edison, and another photo exhibition about Occupy Wall Street. And at the risk of shilling even further, general admission's only 5 bucks, so come on down!

  • BarbaraWoltmannPhoto

    BarbaraWoltmannPhoto said 8 years ago

    I absolutely love the South Street Seaport. One of my favorite photos in my shop is actually of PIer 17 and always reminds me of the fun times I've had there when I look at it. I'm so glad to hear that its been given some new life. I'll have to go check out the museum!

  • PruAtelier

    PruAtelier said 8 years ago

    I too used to frequent the South Street Seaport area during the 70's and into the early 80s whilst still living in NYC. It was then a shopping/dining mecca but of course as you mention, not the maritime enclave that its history told. My feeling is that it should indeed return to its maritime roots....yea....bring back the fish markets albeit on a smaller scale and encourage the creation of fashion/decor that is fitting to its history; modernistic displays/fashion, etc. can relocate as you indicate to a more conducive area.

  • slatevintager

    slatevintager said 8 years ago

    oo! I love the salvaged ship building tools & the shaggie rugged outfits.................

  • RivalryTime

    RivalryTime said 8 years ago


  • volkerwandering

    volkerwandering said 8 years ago

    This sounds like a unique museum. I wonder if it is expensive to get in?

  • flourishingagain

    flourishingagain said 8 years ago

    Sounds like a tough job, moving foward while looking back. Hope they don't trip over their shoelaces.

  • markehrmann

    markehrmann said 8 years ago

    This is a testament that before us lies our past, present and future. It is for us to see that our personal imprint is placed on the historical timeline forever more. So for me, it is a challenge, to have courage, to pick up my tools and begin to design and create. For respecting the past, our ancestors, is respecting ourselves, in our craftsmanship and our future generations ability to craft their ideas.

  • PattiTrostle

    PattiTrostle said 8 years ago

    Interesting article. Thanks!

  • breadandroses2

    breadandroses2 said 8 years ago

    Maritime history & its material culture is fascinating. I hope this institution finds itssea legs anew and generate the a wider, enthusiastic base to provide continued support. Perhaps they should talk with the Western Reserve Historical Society in Cleveland. They were in dire straits some years back and have made a dramatic turnaround. It can be done. Best wishes to this important institution.

  • elleestpetite

    elleestpetite said 8 years ago

    sounds so interesting, wish I could see it

  • thewomensrepublic

    thewomensrepublic said 8 years ago

    Wonderful spotlight on this museum. I will stop by and take a look at it now and see how the exhibit spaces look. I loved the images and discussion concerning the museum's future and focus. It sounds like even more early history and archaeology in terms of NYC itself could bring in more tourists. Didn't they find an amazing older boat during the construction of the world trade center? An exhibit on this or the early archaeological evidence found under buildings would be nice but maybe they have enough of that I have not seen it. It does sound like some of that is included with a focus on the Maritime history-so I will have to check it out. Budget is always and issue. Also, I moved to this area and had no idea it was there so articles like this are great!

  • accentonvintage

    accentonvintage said 8 years ago

    Interesting post!

  • WingedWorld

    WingedWorld said 8 years ago

    Love the arrangement of tools, but the author is right. Without understanding how they were used, we don't get to appreciate the human ingenuity behind the tools. Every tool represents an invention, a solution to a problem.

  • SilverandEarth

    SilverandEarth said 8 years ago

    Very interesting article!

  • metalicious

    metalicious said 8 years ago

    I just toured a children's animation studio down there, it's a gorgeous area. I'll have to take my boys to the museum-- those tools are fantastic!

  • redemptionart

    redemptionart said 8 years ago

    There is no time like the present to learn from our ancestors. The very best to all of the volunteers and workers who give of their time and energy to preserve these "legacies". The lessons in creativity and resourcefulness to the next generation are priceless!

  • wonderboom

    wonderboom said 8 years ago

    I loved the post but what really struck me was the lyrical quality of the photographs.. beautiful!

  • LivingVintage

    LivingVintage said 8 years ago

    Bring back the Fulton Fish Market!

  • sweetsarahcardsandtr

    sweetsarahcardsandtr said 8 years ago

    good read

  • TheMillineryShop

    TheMillineryShop said 8 years ago

    That's funny LivingVintage, that's what I thought!

  • pasin

    pasin said 8 years ago

    Very interesting.

  • Coktaildrink

    Coktaildrink said 8 years ago

    love it! love it!

  • littleshopofphotos

    littleshopofphotos said 8 years ago

    Very interesting! It's been a while since I've been to South Street Seaport...I will definitely have to go, as I've been wanting to anyway, and also check out the museum!!

  • AudreyKerchnerPhotog

    AudreyKerchnerPhotog said 8 years ago

    I photographed in the seaport in 2010 and it's a captivating part of the city. I think having retail stores there feels wrong. They just don't fit. I don't know what does but definitely not retail. I love the idea of musems and art but it has to find its own niche in a city filled with some of the best art around the world. If they pull it off it will absolutely be a fantastic place to see and worth the trip to that part of the city.

  • CarriesCustomDesigns

    CarriesCustomDesigns said 8 years ago

    I use to work around the corner from the Seaport Museum but haven't been there in years. I look forward to visiting it again the next time I'm in the city. Thanks so much for the informative article!

  • OnlyOriginalsByAJ

    OnlyOriginalsByAJ said 8 years ago

    Sounds like a cool Museum! Thanks for sharing!

  • dollfacedesign79

    dollfacedesign79 said 8 years ago

    Great article... I used to live in the top most loft of 159 John Street, an old historical brick building in the middle of the Seaport. The fish market was still active then and every night the cobble stoned streets would burst into motion as the market came to life. A few blocks away under the Brooklyn Bridge is/was a dive called Jeremy's where you could mingle with the fish mongers when they got off work at 6 AM. After the lease ran out on are apartment and we moved out, I heard the Museum took over our old apartment space. I have only been back down there a few times, but my name is still on the mailbox. In the last 8 years or so since living there, the entire area has shifted to become more of a tourist/shopping area. You can still visit the Seaport Museum, the Bodies Exhibit, and the Peking boat docked at Pier 17, but the flavor and richness that gave the Seaport its identity has been stripped away. Now you can pick up the "booze cruise" or shop at Abercrombie & Fitch much like any other mall in America. Living in the Seaport was an adventure and you could feel the history. I will never forget my first apartment.

  • go2vintage

    go2vintage said 8 years ago

    Of all cities to loose such an important part of its origins! N.Y. is, though one of those places best known for setting trends and propelling forward, trying to keep up to it's own momentum......Sooner or later, I've found, the best value is in keeping awareness towards where we've come from. Glad efforts to preserve are getting the attention they need - before it's too late.

  • slathered

    slathered said 8 years ago

    I hope they succeed. I remember going to South Street Seaport when I was young. It left a huge impression as a little kid. It would be a shame to lose something that unique.

  • RossLab

    RossLab said 8 years ago

    So interesting.

  • phbeads

    phbeads said 8 years ago

    I spent hours in the Maritime Museum in Wellington, New Zealand. There are 3 floors and all the displays had to do with the history of the area and it was engrossing and mesmerizing! I think it's an excellent example of how to do it right and should be visited by the board of this museum.

  • statesmanties

    statesmanties said 8 years ago

    I bet a lot of people don't even know about this place. I think posts like this are short in supply and need to be spread more throughout the web and travel books. Nice post!

  • islandglass1

    islandglass1 said 8 years ago

    Enjoyed the article, Thanks!

  • pinksnakejewelry

    pinksnakejewelry said 8 years ago

    Would like to visit the Seaport again!!!! Thank you so much for the information!

  • Ladyhawk98

    Ladyhawk98 said 8 years ago

    The next time I make it to New York City I will be sure to visit your place. Thank you so much for teaching a Kentucky woman alittle bit about New York Cities Seaport history...

  • duckbar65

    duckbar65 said 8 years ago


  • MeMakeyYouLikey

    MeMakeyYouLikey said 8 years ago

    Reading this brought back some happy memories of fantastic trips to the worlds most exciting city.....thanks and good luck!

  • emleehandmade

    emleehandmade said 8 years ago

    i used to go to South Street Seaport as a kid with my grandmother. We used to laugh because she would always call it the South Seas Seaport. In the 80's it was a place to shop. I definitely love the museum idea better. wish I lived closer to visit.

  • thebeadgirl

    thebeadgirl said 8 years ago

    one of my favorite places in the world to visit when i was i live in the midwest :( thanks for your piece, i'm reminded it's time to gather my family and go east for a visit.

  • julsandmaude

    julsandmaude said 8 years ago

    I get what you mean about diluting a treasure trove, and about taking steps to save it. Tough choice.

  • BlueMoonLights

    BlueMoonLights said 8 years ago

    Great post! I would love to see the tool collection.

  • jinny888

    jinny888 said 8 years ago

    that a lot of tool to work

  • HeatherLucille

    HeatherLucille said 8 years ago

    I love the idea of offering a class on building a ship in a bottle. I wonder if they have any sailor valentine's or other folk art made by sailors on long voyages. That would be a big draw, I think. Also - the art of rope tying is fascinating and would make an amazing exhibit - sailors used to send messages to their sweethearts using a code of different types of knots. I really hope this museum finds its footing and can expand it's original purpose.

  • NicoleNicoletta2

    NicoleNicoletta2 said 8 years ago

    great post! i'm going to google that ship in a bottle process...i'm too curious now

  • kendallgardnerdesign

    kendallgardnerdesign said 8 years ago

    Love this article. Thanks!

  • iris756

    iris756 said 8 years ago

    The top picture is beautiful. I love this imaging style....though I did read the post the image is what I really like. Who took this photo?

  • sparrowsalvage

    sparrowsalvage said 8 years ago

    It's a measure of the world we live in that museums must take on a new face in order to survive, but I think it's a welcome thing; as much as it's their duty to preserve the past, finding ways of having the same establishment weave the present and future into the fabric of it is even better. I was the caretaker at an open air pioneer museum in my hometown a few years ago, at a time when it's head was on the chopping block. Visitor numbers were down, buildings were in need of repair and we lost money every day. Through a long and hard campaign we saved the place by implementing this past-present-future method, and it was very successful. I hope this tiny maratime museum has the same success!

  • DebbieDolls

    DebbieDolls said 8 years ago

    I hope the museum keeps getting money, but on the other hand, I hope it concentrates on a maritime theme. I am always interested in ocean or maritime themes.

  • JonEicher

    JonEicher said 8 years ago

    Bring back Fulton Fish Market! Nothing like walking back to Dumbo over the Brooklyn Bridge at 3am on a hot summer night with the moon reflecting on the East River and New York Harbor in the distance and watching the rush of activity at the market under and around the bridge while 80'+ up above on the walkway. The smells, bright lights in a dark city, noise, yelling, idleing trucks and speeding forklifts...all gone. The museum and the area were better with the fish.

  • kennybayne

    kennybayne said 8 years ago

    This looks like a great museum.

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