Living Our Core Values
The recent Charlottesville riots, while distant geographically, cut very close to home conceptually and thematically. As I wrote in a letter to our staff and volunteers in the wake of the conflict, “Actions like those in Charlottesville can make us feel helpless and at a loss for what to do. Each of us will respond in our own manner, but we are fortunate to be part of a community like Mystic Seaport, which is defined not only by our mission and core values but also by the talents and sensitivity of our colleagues with whom we have the privilege to work. We cherish the notion of civility and treating each other and our visitors with dignity and respect. It is what we do. By our very nature we warmly welcome people of all races, all faiths, and all backgrounds… because it is right. We willingly engage people, and we care about their lives and their well-being.”
At Mystic Seaport, even with our very best intentions to live up to that ideal and to be as inclusive as possible, we too make mistakes. We are a mission-focused institution that teaches important elements of history to a broad community, but last week we were taught an important lesson ourselves by two of our visitors.
For the last several years in the side yard of the Children’s Museum, we had a cut-out display for people to stand behind and have a photograph taken with their faces showing through the holes in the panel. The image on the front was a Pears’ Soap advertisement from the late 1800s that showed a woman scrubbing a child. While theoretically innocent in its own right, the visitors opened our eyes to the fact that some of Pears’ Soap advertisements during that period were deemed racially offensive in nature given their explicit content. Thus, as a painful reminder of those ads, they found our Pears’ cut-out to be, quite justifiably, objectionable. We were deeply saddened to say the least.
We immediately took down the display, and in the process we were reminded that we must be more careful about the images we use and the stories we tell from the past that might be disturbing and offensive to people today. The burden of research and internal discussion regarding such matters is on us. Ignorance on our part is no excuse, and this incident has already prompted meaningful internal discussions that will change our conduct going forward. We will be true to our core values and to the priorities of inclusiveness articulated in our strategic plan.
As I watch the disturbing images of destruction and loss coming out of Texas and Louisiana in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, we all can’t but help share a deep sympathy and desire to assist the victims. However, mixed within all the suffering is a poignant message of the very best human qualities across our culture. Shelter and assistance were provided regardless of color, class, or religion, and we were reminded of the strength of humanity and the importance of assisting those in need.
Mystic Seaport has sent out a message to the maritime organizations in the region that we stand ready to support and help them as they attempt to rebuild. We will let our immediate community know how we can be of help to those institutions, but in the meantime, I know individuals will respond as they see fit.
Harvey also reminds of us the perils of extreme weather and rising waters, both of which are distinct threats to our well-being, our ships, our collections, and our buildings at Mystic Seaport. Here too, our ongoing discussions will focus on our disaster preparedness and the remediation needed in years to come. It is sobering to think what a modest rise in sea level would do to Mystic Seaport. One can only imagine what a rain event like Harvey would do to the Mystic River and the properties around it. Stay tuned.