Struck with financial troubles, the South Street Seaport Museum closed its doors in March of 2011. Although its future was then uncertain, it has now reopened under the direction of the Museum of the City of New York, fueled by a $2 million grant from the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation.
The sixteen galleries of the updated museum had their grand opening on January 26, and it’s evident that the museum is searching for a wider audience beyond those just interested in the Seaport’s history. While there are exhibits focused on New York’s nautical past, there are just as many on contemporary photography, design and New York City as a whole.
After the Museum of the City of New York took over in October 2011 under a one-year agreement with the City of New York, they only had months in which to prepare the opening shows. Culled from the Seaport Museum’s collections, previous exhibits at the City Museum and even the walls of the historic gallery space, they are a promising, although not yet cohesive, future for the Seaport Museum.
After entering the 1811 Schermerhorn row houses, you are greeted by lobby punctuated in a bright shade of blue that continues throughout the galleries. The exhibition design is by Cooper Joseph Studios with Pure + Applied.
Escalators take you up to a room with hundreds of fishing weights suspended from the ceiling and a clear view to the docked historic boats on the water. One gallery has 2009 Manhatta: Manhattan in 1609 on display, which is a look at what the city was before the arrival of settlers. In another introductory space, the film “Timescapes” is exhibited as if to remind you of the dense history of New York, and that you have Robert Moses to thank for the expressway cutting off your view of the piers.
With the reopening, all three floors of the building have gallery space for the first time. Started in 1967, the museum’s first mission was to save the Schermerhorn row houses and make the historic vessels at Piers 15 and 16 accessible to the public. Now it is guarding this mission of historic preservation, but also seeking to draw in new and repeat visitors to its galleries.
Detailed model ships in bottles and on stands, a sampling from the museum’s collection of around 2,500 models, form organized fleets in the first two exhibits, called “Bottled Up” and “Super Models” (the exhibit designers love puns). Another exhibit focuses on contemporary furniture design, which is a jarring shift.
The link between the contemporary furniture and the seaport seems tenuous at best. The museum explains that the coastal area of Manhattan was once a center of manufacturing, and these contemporary objects made in New York represent the new artisans. It doesn’t feel like a solid enough link but the attempt to work in contemporary design is welcome.
The museum has a few galleries devoted to the “Made in New York” exhibition, and locally created furniture, fashion and objects made of modern materials contrast nicely with the worn brick and wood ceilings.
Another of the intriguing historic exhibits has a field of antique tools that were used in maritime and port work, including the flenser that was used to remove blubber from whales.
In the “Coffee, Tea, Fish and the Tattooed Man” exhibit on the history of Schermerhorn Row, a corner focuses on Gus Wagner, the early 20th century “globetrotting artist and taxidermist,” as he called himself. Wagner claimed to be the “most artistically marked up man in America” and exhibited himself in New York, showing off the art he’d collected on his skin during his world travels. He also inked his own art onto others, and the exhibit includes pages from his flash books, as well as his handmade tattoo needles with handles carved in the shapes of a snake, lizard and eagle. Briefly enveloped by his colorful story, I was transported to before the South Street Seaport was a tourist destination, way back to its days as a surging center for trade, when sailors and merchants came up and down from the mouth of the East River, when tall masted ships arrived daily and others set sail from the harbor for exotic locales.
Schermerhorn Row, which includes the museum, is also a time machine or sorts. Nineteenth century graffiti is preserved on the walls, there are views down old elevator shafts and even a burlap bag tumbler left in the building from 1920 (apparently you can use that apparatus to clean burlap bags much as you clean lettuce with a salad spinner).
There is also a creepy corridor from the Rogers Hotel and Dining Room, which existed on Schermerhorn Row from 1850 to 1920, when the area was still being used as an arrival point. Peeling paint and unsettling shadows are visible through broken wooden slats, and one of the mannequins from the fashion design exhibit was, for some reason, positioned right in the middle of the hallway, which can really startle you out if you happen to visit the museum on a quiet day.
The Seaport Museum includes video installations, including Ben Rubin’s “Terminal 8” (2012), another tangential link to the seaport with JFK airport presented as the “new port,” and the mesmerizing “Time & Tide: The Waterfront in Film 1903-2011” installation, where videos are projected on three walls that emphasize the never ending movement of the city from its shores.
The last two galleries are devoted to photography, with “Widely Different: New York City Panoramas by Jeff Chien-Hsing Liao and Sylvia Plachy” and “Occupy Wall Street: A Photographic Document.” The latter has 120 photographs by 70 photographers selected from thousands of submissions (you can see them all on Flickr), and I thought it was the most successful of the contemporary-minded exhibits at linking the history of the waterfront area to present-day New York. These photos show how the area around the seaport, even with its tourist traps and cold canyons of glass and steel, still plays an integral role in the story of the city and its people.
What the museum has done in just a few months with its galleries is impressive, and we should all look forward to seeing how it expands on the port’s history and applies those to the contemporary realities of life in the big city. While there’s definitely some fine tuning left to do in the exhibits of the Museum, it’s well worth the trip to see the beautiful galleries and unusual artifacts.
The South Street Seaport Museum (12 Fulton Street, Manhattan) is open Wednesday through Sunday, 10 am to 6 pm.
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