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.
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.
“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?
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.