Maritime Traditions

Steve White

Seascapes: Spring/Summer 2011

Something has been gnawing at me lately. I am burdened by the realization that, while we are the stewards of a nationally significant collection, Mystic Seaport is also largely responsible for keeping our nation’s great maritime traditions alive and vibrant, and seeing to it that they are passed forward to our rising generations. The present economic realities make this obligation exceedingly challenging, but that inspires us all the more to remain steadfast in our resolve to maintain these traditions, such as large and small timber work, sail making, sea music, sail training, rigging, shipsmithing, coopering and storytelling.

Mystic Seaport has been a key resource and location over the years for passing forward these skills, and we are proud of that role as we see our “alumni” actively involved across the nation in advancing these important traditions. Fortunately, we are joined in this work by our partner museums in the Council of American Maritime Museums, the programs within ASTA, the instructors at schools such as WoodenBoat and IYRS, and experiential programs such as Ocean Classroom Foundation. All help to ensure that our great maritime traditions are perpetuated. But in these times that we all confront, these skills are at risk; they are vulnerable and susceptible to our responses to a weak economy. It’s why gatherings of like-minded enthusiasts at events such as the Sea Music Festival and the WoodenBoat Show are so important.They remind us all of how critical these skills are to our maritime heritage and how hard we must advocate for funding and opportunities to keep them strong.

We know that it takes scores and scores of trained, dedicated practitioners, artisans, performers, researchers and scholars to ensure that these great traditions remain alive, and not solely remembered in scholarly papers, books or documentaries. Our skilled staff at Mystic Seaport are not merely adding life to history through their regular work at the Museum; they are, indeed, responsible for advancing the very skills that helped make history. The essential question for us these days is not so much where and how these skills will be passed on, but if we will be able to commit enough resources so that rising generations are suitably trained both to inherit the obligation and to then pass on the skill. With each reduction, nationwide, of programs and experiences, we weaken the knowledge base and thereby threaten the tradition itself of transferring knowledge from generation to generation. These skills that characterize our maritime heritage are as important to preserve and keep in the public eye as the objects themselves. As museums and practitioners, we must remember that our collective commitment to the American maritime experience depends largely on the qualified people who share it and teach it. To those of you who are members of Mystic Seaport and other tradition-based organizations, please know that through your membership dues and Annual Fund contributions you are helping to sustain these traditions that define and characterize our maritime heritage.

See you on the grounds.

Steve White



Stephen C. White