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THE CRISIS AT THE SOUTH STREET SEAPORT MUSEUM

Save Our Seaport (SOS) is a group of concerned citizens — former and current museum employees, volunteers, and members; historians; and friends of the museum — deeply alarmed by recent actions of the administration and trustees of the South Street Seaport Museum; actions which are destroying the museum’s credibility, threatening to negate its mission, and putting the entire institution at risk.

Opportunity Knocks

With its prime location in one of Manhattan’s most historically important districts; its unique collections of buildings, ships, artifacts, and archaeological materials; and its rich and globally significant mission, the South Street Seaport Museum has the potential to become a major museum. The recent change in management and the subsequent dismissal of virtually the museum’s entire professional staff has precipitated a crisis, which we believe threatens the museum’s very existence. But this transition also presents an unprecedented opportunity to bring in new leadership and finally transform the South Street Seaport Museum into a preeminent interpretive center for maritime and urban history, and the eastern most anchor of a renewed and rebuilt lower Manhattan.

A Brief History

The South Street Seaport Museum, which occupies some of the most significant historic buildings within the South Street Seaport Historic District in lower Manhattan, was founded in 1967 by a group of individuals determined to save this rundown district from destruction, and to create a museum there. The group was successful; it preserved the buildings and brought to the museum’s piers historic ships to be used as a platform to interpret the maritime and commercial roots of New York City.

Today, most historians of New York City, among them the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Gotham, Mike Wallace, acknowledge that New York’s history was shaped by its port. The South Street Seaport Museum is the only New York City history institution dedicated to interpreting the port’s role. The museum has made and should continue to make important contributions to the understanding of New York City history and its relationship to national and world history through its connections to the global trade in goods, people, and ideas.

A Museum at Risk

The museum that grew out of that grass roots effort is now in jeopardy. In 2003, four key workers in the development and waterfront areas were dismissed. Then, in June 2004, the newly installed museum administration dismissed almost all of the remaining professional staff (historians and curators), leaving the museum bereft of anyone capable, by dint of training or experience, to carry out the museum’s core mission. This is akin to a hospital dismissing its physicians and carrying on with a staff of nurses and administrators, or an orchestra firing its musicians and offering audiences recordings instead of live music.

Because of these dismissals, SOS is gravely concerned about the fate of the following key components of the museum:

The nation’s largest fleet of privately maintained historic vessels. A drastic reduction in the waterfront staff, including the recent dismissal of Jim Clements, the waterfront director, who had been associated with the museum for nearly three decades, places the fleet at risk. Without his oversight, the vessels, piers, and docks, already in dangerously poor condition, will continue to deteriorate. In addition to maintaining its fleet in safe condition, the museum’s mission requires that it restore vessels to their original condition for the purposes of interpretation. But the dismissal of maritime historian Norman Brouwer (see library section), has left the museum without anyone qualified to oversee the restoration of the Wavertree and other vessels. Even the museum’s board chairman, Lawrence Huntington, seems to have abdicated responsibility for the care of the ships: he told a New York Times reporter recently (July 8, 2004) that “Nobody wants to support them…They live in salt water, and if they’re not cared for, they sink.”

World Port New York. The long planned permanent exhibit (intended to be the centerpiece of the museum’s interpretative plan) is now stalled indefinitely with the departure of the two remaining curators (both part-time). Ironically, the museum finally opened the newly reconstructed Schermerhorn Row (a rare, full city block of early 19th-century commercial buildings) -- the intended home of World Port New York -- at the same time it dismissed every professional staff member needed to complete and mount the exhibit in the new gallery space. For the past 30 years, the museum has paid Norman Brouwer and other researchers and curators to assemble the material and acquire the knowledge to mount this exhibit, but that investment has been tossed away. No one remains who posseses the institutional memory or the expert knowledge required to mount this groundbreaking exhibit.

The museum’s library. This unique collection of tens of thousands of books, photographs, drawings and other important archival collections, built from the ground up by internationally renowned maritime historian Norman Brouwer, is being dismantled in the wake of his abrupt dismissal after 32 years of employment at the museum. Access to the collection is uncertain as is the condition of many of the materials that are being packed up by volunteers and placed in storage. The fate of the library aside, dismissing Mr. Brouwer leaves a major history museum without a historian. Mr. Brouwer is considered “one of the most knowledgeable people regarding historic ships” by the Mystic Seaport librarian, who added that “it is truly a blow to the maritime history world that he is now removed from his collection.”

The museum’s archaeology collection. The archaeology community has expressed deep concern about the future of this unique collection comprising two million artifacts unearthed from the streets of New York City. Among its treasures are the only surviving artifacts (a scant precious 18 in all) from the Five Points excavation in lower Manhattan out of a total of 850,000 artifacts that had been stored in the World Trade Center, and were destroyed on September 11, 2001, and a trove of items from the 17th - century Dutch settlement of Nieuw Amsterdam — rare physical evidence of the lives of people who are otherwise poorly documented. This collection and the museum’s satellite archaeology center, New York Unearthed, were left without a curator by the firing of Diane Dallal, the museum’s archaeology curator for 12 years. Not only is the accessibility of this unique and important research and exhibition collection severely diminished, but these priceless and irreplaceable artifacts (considered “one of New York’s historic treasures”) require care, conservation and interpretation that can only be provided by a qualified archaeologist. Without “continuous oversight by an archaeologist trained as a conservator who understands the physical needs of the artifacts, part of the collection could literally self-destruct” wrote a leading archaeologist familiar with the collection.

Destroyed Trust & Credibility

Save Our Seaport expresses a strong lack of confidence in the current administration and board to carry out the mission of the museum for the following reasons:

1) The current management team lacks educational qualifications and credentials in the museum, maritime or history fields.

2) Evidence of past and ongoing fiscal irresponsibility, including a longstanding pattern of misuse of restricted funds.

3) The dismissal of a veteran waterfront director at a time when the waterfront infrastructure and the museum’s fleet of historic vessels need extensive and expert maintenance. According to one expert the ships in their current condition pose a clear and present danger to visitors and the sailing public.

4) The overall neglect of the museum’s collections and resources — the ships, the library materials, the archaeological collections, art and artifacts, a large and important collection of rare 19th century printing type and presses— with only vague plans to care for these priceless objects. Many gifts to the collections were bequeathed collections with the understanding that they would be properly maintained and would be accessible to the public. To do otherwise is to breach these important contracts, which undermines confidence in the museum as a whole and discourages future donations.

5) A decision to focus the lion’s share of museum resources on education programs at the expense of other museum functions. This overemphasis on education at the expense of curatorial functions suggests that the museum is redefining its mission and may be in violation of its charter.

6) The museum’s failure to take a leadership role as guardians of the South Street Seaport Historic District, which its founders pledged to preserve. The museum’s failure to establish a strong museum presence, a trend which we believe is showing signs of worsening under the current administration, has allowed commercialization to overwhelm and even obliterate the area’s historic character.

Next Steps to Save Our Seaport

The museum needs new leadership immediately. The ideal leader will be qualified by experience and training to undertake the challenging task of rebuilding the museum. This high-profile top executive will understand the institution’s mission, will communicate it effectively to funders, members, and volunteers, and will possess a spotless reputation that will reassure stakeholders that donations will be used appropriately and wisely to further the museum’s mission.

This individual will understand the museum’s unique character as a historic district, consisting of buildings, original streetscapes, and ships as well as its collections of artifacts and archival materials — all of which comprise an unparalleled resource for all New Yorkers and visitors.

This leader will understand that while each facet of the museum — its collections of artifacts, its ships, its library, its archaeological holdings and conservation lab, its buildings, its print shop — are treasures in and of themselves, their greatest value lies in the connections among them which, when taken together, tell the complex story of the relationship between maritime commerce and the growth of New York City as a world capital of trade in goods, people and ideas. The museum with only one of those dimensions cannot tell that complex and compelling story.

It is for this reason that we advocate seeing the museum’s holdings, ships, and buildings as an integrated whole that must be saved as a whole by a professional staff capable of raising the museum to the status it deserves as one of New York’s premiere history institutions.