Mystic Seaport Pitches Big Leap Forward, and Venetian Show from the Smithsonian

MYSTIC — In five or ten years, what do you want to hang your hat on, I asked Peter Armstrong, what would you like to get done?

His answer, stretching over an hour of conversation in early November, is quite a lot.

“I think we hang our hat on being a kind of a maritime museum that is looking forward, not backwards,” Armstrong explained, sketching out a remarkable array of near-term projects and announcements – an upscale hotel, conference space, a new seafood restaurant to encourage evening visitors, a $2.4 Million Mellon grant, floating docks to welcome visiting boaters, and one or two international-caliber exhibitions, most notably “Sargent, Whistler, and Venetian Glass: American Artists and the Magic of Murano,” a traveling exhibition by Smithsonian American Art Museum originally intended for Venice, but planned to open instead in Mystic in late 2022.

What’s clear, after assembling that list (far from complete), is that anyone who works for or cares for or volunteers for Mystic Seaport would be foolish to dismiss even Armstrong’s most ambitious goals as mere bravado.

“I want Mystic Seaport to be seen as the leading Maritime Museum in America. And then become one of the top five international museums in the world,” Armstrong claimed.

Just one year ago, he was named the new president of the Mystic Seaport Museum.

A self-described “museum professional,” Armstrong arrived in the midst of COVID, with the departure of a dedicated and often older population of volunteers and significant layoffs of seaport employees.

“I think we hang our hat on being a kind of a maritime museum that is looking forward, not backwards”

The goal was, and still is, to stay afloat.

“Sustainability is the word that’s in my head all the time,” Armstrong told CT Examiner. “And when I took this job, that was one of the things, that Mystic Seaport has to get to a point where it is sustainable, and sustainable in two ways: One is financial, and one is environmental.”

In broad strokes Armstrong laid out plans to address the flipside of the seaport’s close connection to the water – nearly a half mile of the “best river views in Mystic” – the expected challenge of sea-level rise.

“Because we’ve got historic buildings that are going to be in a floodplain. So, consequently we are now considering how we move some of those buildings, how we prepare some of those buildings, because the seaport originally was, some of it was, taken from the river, and now the river wants it back. And we’re not going to try and stop that,” explained Armstrong.

And with the help of federal COVID aid, and recent grant monies, he outlined a one-time chance to chart more conservative approach toward the museum endowment. According to Armstrong, on an annual basis the seaport has been losing money and “dipping far too far into its endowment.” He said his responsibility was to cut that draw on the endowment to between three and five percent.

“We’ve got 2 million objects in storage. All with stories attached to them. So how do you sell which of them to tell and which of them not to tell?”

All in all, the plans reflect remarkable chutzpah for an expat with only modest ties to maritime history, but a few decades of work experience at various museums in the United Kingdom and United States – most recently heading two living history museums, the Jamestown Settlement, and the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown.

“Look, COVID is kind of the ultimate change maker, right?,” he underscored. “So, anyone who believes that you could go back to the status quo after COVID is kind of crackers.”

Armstrong instead floated a variety of ideas – some family-friendly, others academic, many more that would place the seaport squarely on a progressive footing in terms of equity, accessibility, and social mission, leveraging he said, the institutional trust that the public still gives museums, even as they draw away from the press and politicians.

“Museums still have this high level of trust from the general public that the information they are taking [away] is the truth. So, that’s really from our point of view something that we have to ensure that we continue to do,” said Armstrong. “That then kind of takes you down a route of saying, well, everything we talked about should be the truth. And if it is the truth, then we have to tell all of it, warts and all, because history is messy. You know, it’s not the kind of storyline you may have heard in schools. It’s not necessarily what you were brought up with. It may not be what you saw on the TV and in movies. You know, it’s a messy subject.”

Key to that the storytelling mission are new curatorial hires, with the support of the Mellon Foundation, who are expected to focus less narrowly on maritime history, and more broadly on crafting stories that will resonate with new audiences.

“So, you start at one end of Mystic Seaport,” said Armstrong, “and you have the leading historic wooden shipyard in the world. So, you’ve got guys in there that can fix historic wooden ships from all over the world and are called upon to do so. And at the other end of it, you have a collection of 2 million objects, with curators who are the leading experts on maritime history, who would spend days and hours just researching — so a very different types of individuals and everything in between.”

“So, anyone who believes that you could go back to the status quo after COVID is kind of crackers.”

Again and again in our conversation, Armstrong returns to the idea of storytelling.

“We’ve got 2 million objects in storage. All with stories attached to them. So how do you sell which of them to tell and which of them not to tell?” Armstrong asked.

“If you take the whaleships for instance, when they set off on a four- or five- or six-years journey, they would pick up people, drop off people, mix people together. People who are leaving New Bedford never left more than 20 miles in the past, but all of a sudden were arriving in Argentina and Peru and New Zealand and places they’ve never seen before, and those stories are coming back.”

The recent accession of a large collection of cruise ship ephemera, including menus, suggests for Armstrong an opportunity to relate shipboard dining to stories of travel and cultural diffusion in the 1920s.

And Armstrong envisions these stories brought into the present day.

“So, we’re developing our interpretation to be more than necessarily, ‘let me tell you how they used to make a barrel.’ We’d still be doing that because we want to keep those trades going, but you know, if we’re talking about making a barrel should we also be talking about containerships?” Armstrong suggested before skipping ahead to even more ambitious plans to work with incubator groups and startup groups to study uses for kelp and oysters — two examples of the new approach.

Alongside all of these projects, Armstrong pitches a brass-tacks effort to make over the seaport into a place to take your children to play on a ropewalk and have a cup of coffee, to tie up your boat and take advantage of planned restrooms and showers, and to walk your dog.

In two years, he expects to Greenwich Hospitality Group to open a boutique hotel and restaurant on the grounds.

And on Monday, the seaport announced that Lancer Hospitality would reopen an espresso bar in the Thompson Building in January, provide quick service and “grab-and-go” meals, as well as catering for weddings and private events at the seaport.

“The best thing about Mystic Seaport is how much people love it. And the worst thing, is how much people love it,” said Armstrong. “Any change is always difficult because people say, well, it’s always been like that since I was a kid, right? So you’ve always got that and you don’t want to lose that. But you do have to move forward. So it’s kind of that balance that is a tricky one.”

Soon Armstrong was hurrying off, plans in hand, across Greenman Ave, to his next meeting, but that’s another story…

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