Some municipalities pride themselves in looking far into the future. Mystic, Conn., etched its place on the map by ushering visitors way into the past.
The town of 4,205 residents is ideally situated to have served as a thriving seaport in the mid-1800s, and now boasts the world’s largest maritime museum, established in 1929. The Mystic Seaport Museum campus encompasses 37 acres of indoor and outdoor exhibits composed of more than a million artifacts highlighting the area’s shipbuilding and seafaring heritage. The complex contains more than 50 historic buildings.
The centerpiece of the museum’s inventory of 500-plus ocean vessels is the Charles W. Morgan, the world’s only remaining seaworthy whaling ship, which was built and launched in 1841.
The Morgan was hauled to Mystic for restoration in November 2008. After a feasibility study was completed, the museum’s board of trustees voted to relaunch the vessel, one of the most documented ships in U.S. history, on its so-called 38th voyage.
The Morgan was launched July 21, 2013, on the 172nd anniversary of her first voyage. During the eight-week odyssey, the ship docked at various New England ports as 65,000 people toured the ship and its accompanying 22,000-square-foot dockside exhibition. A crew of 15 professional mariners sailed the ship, which was escorted by tugboats and other vessels.
Onshore reenactors present demonstrations of the crafts and skills of the 19th century seaside village, including blacksmithing, cooperage, woodcarving, nautical instrument making, typesetting, open-hearth cooking, quilting, weaving and gardening.
Several original homes have been moved to the campus and are restored to replicate a modest seaport community of more than a century and a half ago.
“It’s like jumping into the past,” wrote one visitor on www.tripadvisor.com. Approximately 91% of the more than 3,000 reviews on the website rated the experience excellent or very good.
Other reviewers divulged their delights in the multitude of educational nuances available at the museum complex.
“Stand on the deck of the Morgan under the small whale boats and look up,” advised one visitor. “That’s where the harpoons are stored.”
Another suggested visiting the town chemist and “tell them you have a cough, cold, nearsightedness, aches or whatever you can think of. See what old-fashioned and potentially hazardous remedy they recommended in the olden days.”
The planetarium provides an educational look at how mariners of the past navigated by the stars, and two theaters offer 3D glimpses into the lives of captains, crews and wildlife in and on the open seas.
The Mystic Aquarium houses thousands of animals, including beluga whales, sharks, stingrays, crabs, penguins, frogs and a multitude of fish. Daily live presentations occur during animal training and feeding sessions.
Many of the exhibits throughout the museum are hands-on and interactive.
For the past two years in June, the campus has been transformed into a celebration of Viking culture, complete with Scandinavian cuisine, encampments, craft demonstrations, live musical and stage performances, hands-on traditional Viking games, informative lectures and nautical activities.
Other annual June activities include the four-day Sea Music Festival and a three-day wooden boat show.
According to www.mysticseaport.org, the museum’s signal shoreside attractions include:
- Greenmanville Church, built in 1851, which served as the worship center and community gathering place for the town’s sizable Seventh Day Baptist contingent.
- Cooperage, or barrel making shop, which provided watertight casks for spirits, molasses, whale oil, foodstuffs and crockery. The largest casks, called tuns, held about 252 gallons and weighed approximately 2,000 pounds when full.
- Buckingham-Hall House, a representative coastal farmhouse rescued from the wrecking ball in 1951.
- A spacious sail loft, where sails were cut and sewn from patterns drawn on the floor. To maximize uninterrupted work space, even the stove was suspended from the ceiling.
- Ship carver shop, which produced nameboards, figureheads, shop signs, tobacconist figures and home decorations.
- American Seamen’s Friend Society reading room, established in the 1820s. The society operated reputable sailors’ boardinghouses; provided access to religious services, lectures and reading rooms; and sent out more than 13,000 40-book seagoing libraries on ships mooring at the seaport.
- Nautical instruments shop, including antique navigational tools such as quadrants, sextants and chronometers.
- Shipsmith shop, built in 1885, the only manufactory of ironwork for the whaling industry surviving from the 19th century.
According to its latest annual report, the museum drew 259,647 visitors in 2018, including 32,000 students and adults served by its education department. Six new exhibits were opened that year.
The museum employed 347 paid staff and 625 volunteers who contributed more than 54,000 volunteer hours last year.
The museum subsists on government and foundation grants, gate admissions and program fees, membership dues, sales of concessions and merchandise, individual and corporate donations and trustee contributions.
For more information, visit www.mysticseaport.org or call (860) 572-0711.