From the President
Mystic Seaport at 85
On Christmas Day, Mystic Seaport: The Museum of America and the Sea quietly turned 85. Back in 1929 on that day, Carl C. Cutler, Edward E. Bradley, and Charles K. Stillman signed papers agreeing to form the Marine Historical Association, and on January 2 the first bylaws were completed and Mr. Bradley was elected the Association’s first president. They came together to save the artifacts of America’s maritime heritage, which they saw rapidly disappearing. What follows is how Marion Dickerman described their mission in her monograph The Three Founders: “In the very beginning it was decided that the Association should be national in scope and in certain aspects even broader. The founders envisioned it as a live, dynamic, educational force, presenting our past maritime greatness to the public in such surroundings and in such an atmosphere that the achievements of the past would become an inspirational force for the future.” Those are indeed inspirational words, and I think the force of that inspiration has had a profound impact on generations of trustees, staff, members, volunteers, and a broader public.
It’s easy to become nostalgic at Mystic Seaport and especially on anniversaries like this. So of course for me the best place to turn is to the early writings of Marion Dickerman as she celebrated the lives and accomplishments of our three founders. I would observe that our three founders guided the institution extremely, and during some difficult times, well until they retired in succession. First Mr. Bradley, then Dr. Stillman, and finally Mr. Cutler when he stepped down in 1952, having run the Museum with great determination and commitment for 23 of the first 25 years. They created the foundation upon which this great institution was built and has subsequently thrived. Chairman of the Board P.R. Mallory said in 1965 that Mystic Seaport had “become a ‘port of call’ of national interest.” Of course, by 1976 that port of call had become even more broadly known, as Mystic Seaport was an essential part of the national movement to recognize one’s roots and our national heritage.
But much has happened since our founders passed on the obligation to those who would follow. Mr. Cutler brought the Charles W. Morgan to Mystic Seaport and forever changed the landscape of the Museum, if not the town of Mystic itself. As the collections grew and programs evolved, Mystic Seaport clearly established itself as America’s leading maritime museum with an unparalleled archive of knowledge and talent.
I think our three founders would be both amazed and pleased by what they see today at Mystic Seaport with the creation of the Henry B. duPont Preservation Shipyard; the state-of-the-art Collections Research Center; collections that continue to grow and to serve the public; educational programs that now include virtual tours and STEM activities, and now the important work on Mayflower II.
We are poised to build a new Thompson Exhibition Building, breaking ground on the north end of the campus on the morning of January 8th. This building on the 85th anniversary of the founding of the Museum serves as an important milestone and symbolizes the institution’s commitment to great exhibitions in the very same manner in which the creation of the Seaport Village symbolized then the institution’s commitment to creating meaningful context for its collections and important vessels. The Thompson Exhibition Building will allow Mystic Seaport to show important elements of the collections as well as demonstrate our institutional scope and capacity. Additionally, the new gallery space will welcome the finest exhibitions from maritime museums around the world.
Our founders expected us to be an inspirational force for the future; they expected us to take risks and to lead the way; and they expected us to adapt to the evolving forces around us much like they did during the Museum’s earliest days during the Great Depression. It is clear to me that the institution’s values have remained the same to a great extent, and they have been embodied by our staff and trustees all along the way. It is also clear, however, that the delivery systems have changed. For example, the 38th Voyage of the Charles W. Morgan took our icon back to the waters of her earliest days in an unprecedented demonstration of the principles of public history. Our new delivery systems also include an interactive website called Mystic Seaport for Educators that allows teachers and students to engage with the Museum and to take advantage of our remarkable collection in a manner that is at once relevant and compelling to them.
So Mystic Seaport has evolved, and it has done so with a variety of different leaders and trustees who for 85 years have believed that our country’s maritime heritage is important and that it must be known far and wide. In the epilogue of The Three Founders, Marion Dickerman writes about the three founders, but in fact, in 1965, she was writing about everyone who has ever been involved with our distinguished institution when she wrote “… three men and an idea – an ideal perhaps. Men who loved the sea and who, out of their own experiences, had learned the lessons the sea alone could teach. Men who believed our maritime ancestors had played a vital role in our history as a people and wanted those lessons handed down so all might understand. Such were the men who founded Mystic Seaport.”
Happy New Year,