Mystic Seaport’s Steve White Takes a Bow


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MYSTIC — “It was a perfect moment, an intersection of all these key things coming together,” Steve White said in a phone conversation with CT Examiner on December 19. “The Charles W. Morgan needed to be restored, and then the question became how much should she be restored. It was clear to me as a new person here that if we’re going to restore her that much that this would certainly be the only and singular opportunity to take her back to sea.” 

For White, 66, who announced on December 17 that he will retire in 2020 as president and CEO of Mystic Seaport Museum, it was a pivotal decision that helped define his vision for the future of the institution — the museum’s restoration of the 1841 Charles W. Morgan, the last wooden whaling ship in the world.

It was 2009 and the economy was in recession, but White said he saw potential in the restoration project for teaching maritime history through lived experience.

“There is nobody living today anywhere that has ever sailed on a whaling ship, so it was our opportunity to take her back to sea and to understand what it was like, so that the staff members here who are so dedicated to her could have this opportunity to feel what it was like to be aloft while she’s sailing. Instead of saying to our visitors, this is probably what it felt like, they could say this is what it felt like,” he said. 

Sailing on the C.W. Morgan made “history come alive” and provided a new generation with lived experience that can be passed down, he said. 

“For us as a history museum, there is no better way to speak about history than to live it and that’s what we did by taking her back to sea,” he said. 

Sailing the Morgan also revealed unexpected information, he said. 

“We sort of think of her as a whaling ship or as a factory vessel, but she was actually quite nimble in the way she tacked and moved through the water,” he said. “We knew she was sturdy and well-built successful ship who sailed for 80 years as a whaling vessel, but we didn’t know she was going to be such a good vessel to sail, that was one of those unanticipated surprises.” 

White said he is proud of the museum’s four national historic landmark vessels since no other maritime museum has a similar grouping. The vessels include the Charles W. Morgan; the 1866 Emma C. Berry, the last surviving well smack vessel, designed to keep catch alive; the 1908 Sabino wooden steamboat that became seaworthy in 2017 after restoration; and the 1921 L.A. Dunton, a sail-powered fishing vessel.

The museum is also in the process of restoring Plimoth Plantation’s Mayflower II, a 1957 replica of the Mayflower designed by naval architect William Avery Baker that will be taken back to sea in the summer of 2020.

White said that the more a boat is used, the longer it will last. 

“You can take a boat out of the water but you then have a different challenge in that the wood dries out. One of the great reasons the Morgan has lasted so long is she’s always been in the water, and she still has about 18 to 20 percent of her original wood,” he said. “If you think some of that wood was harvested for the Mayflower in 1841, it could have been growing at the same time as colonies were being established in America.” 

The role of technology 

Knowledge of 19th century maritime skills and trades cannot be replaced by technology, but technology can help enhance that knowledge, White said. 

“The maritime trades and the keeping of those trades and the passing along from one generation to the other of these trades is critically important to us because it’s knowledge that can’t be lost,” he said. “Technology is a very interesting tool to enhance or augment but in my opinion technology can’t replace so many of these skills and the understanding of the past.”

At the same time, he said the museum uses laser-imaging to measure vessels, including the Mayflower II and the Sabino, to help better understand their shape and geometry. 

“There is this intersection of technology and traditional skill and it’s helping us do a better job,” he said. 

White said when he was a classroom teacher who worked through the beginning of the computer age, he learned there’s a role for technology but a good class can’t be taught by a computer.

“And a good experience with history can’t be shared by a computer — you have to do it, you have to live it, you have to experience it. What makes Mystic Seaport so important is the experience of history,” he said. “We embrace technology a fair amount … but to me as an educator and a believer in history there is just no replacement for the actual experience that helps us understand the concept and then to share that concept in our own life.” 

White referred back to the museum’s mission statement, ““to inspire an enduring connection to the American maritime experience.” 

“You can’t inspire without providing the experience, in my opinion, so technology is a tool, but not going to replace the experience of history,” he said.

Building for the future

The $15.3 Thompson Exhibition Building, a 14,000-square-foot space designed by Centerbrook Architects & Planners and completed in 2016, is one of White’s biggest accomplishments, but also stands out as the project he’s taken the most criticism for. 

White said the goal was to create a space for all-weather exhibitions that would provide visitors with significant experiences indoors at Mystic Seaport Museum and increase attendance year-round.

“There was the desire to build something would stand out in the community … and so the building had to be different, it had to have more contemporary look, because it was not going to be part of the central part of the campus that has a historic vernacular,” he said. “One of our trustees said what we’re really looking for is a building that stands out but fits in, and this building does, I think, accomplish that.”

With its wooden construction, the building resembles the rest of the campus, but the curvilinear design resembles “the geometry of the sea,” as described by the architect, White said. 

“He listened to what our goals and aspirations were and created a building that was metaphoric in its presentation, that represented our relationship with the sea, but not in a traditional way, in a much more contemporary way,” White said. “It isn’t iconic about the 19th century like some of our other buildings. It’s iconic for a maritime museum that is looking to the future or as a bridge to the future, not a bridge to the past. We have plenty of buildings that connect us to the past, this building needed to connect us to the future.” 

The geothermal building is built to “green” standards with a rainwater filtration system that returns clean, filtered water to the Mystic River rather than runoff, said White. 

“It’s one of those little hidden secrets about the building that you wouldn’t necessarily know, that the building is contributing in a very positive way to our environment,” he said. The building was constructed at a high enough standard to bring in the J.M.W. Turner: Watercolors from Tate show, the most comprehensive exhibition of its kind, he said.